Many of us have misgivings about how the European Union (EU) manages the health of its half billion or so population. Much of this stems from the fact that so much of the EU – in its proclaimed efforts to abide by its treaty obligations and create a functioning single market – is tied up by centralised control via unelected, largely unaccountable bureaucrats. Yes, an expensive European parliament gives a nod to some semblance of democracy, with seats in Brussels and Strasbourg. However, the sheer number of laws flying through the system, the power of big business lobbying and poor public recognition of most Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) means that this is viewed by many as tokenism, rather than real democracy. The resulting loss of national sovereignty by EU ‘member states’ has led to an undoubted rise of tyranny enacted by the EU and some of its most supportive governments.

If you wish to cast an objective eye on the status quo – and that’s a prerequisite for anyone with plans to use their efforts to improve the lot of European citizens – you have to ask yourself a question. Is there consistency about the way in which EU laws are used to regulate, on one hand, natural health products like vitamins, minerals and herbs, versus, on the other hand, genetically modified (GM) crops and foods?

European laws are seen as draconian by many of us. Imagine this: the EU has outlawed the use of terms like ‘probiotic’, ‘prebiotic’ and ‘antioxidant’ because the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has yet to see evidence that ingredients labelled with such functions engender these benefits to consumers. The EU has also limited use of vitamins and minerals to only those it has approved, effectively banning many hundreds of forms that were used prior to 2010, when the positive list of permitted forms was implemented.

But here’s a salient point: the biotech industry is as disgruntled with EU laws affecting its business operation as is the natural products industry. Only around 50 GM crops have been authorised in the EU. This is a large number for those of us who don’t support the technology, but a small number compared with the 344 that have received the approval from regulators worldwide.

The precautionary principle: to protect humans, the environment – or business?

The biotech industry has long argued that it’s the use of the precautionary principle in Europe that is hampering the approval process. The precautionary principle (PP), itself defined in several ways, and generally opting for precaution in the face of scientific uncertainty, is of course subject to diverse interpretation. Moreover, it is the perception of what constitutes uncertainty over risk or hazard that is more likely to stimulate a cautionary approach – i.e. non-approval of use of a GM food – than the existence of the principle itself.

The consumer right to know

There’s no doubt that the EU has favoured the PP for some time. It has applied it to general food law (Regulation 178/2002), just has it has to GM foods. Yet it hasn’t meant that foods that cause harm to certain individuals are necessarily removed from the food supply. Take wheat or dairy, for example. Around 20% of the European population have some intolerance to wheat and 1% have developed an autoimmune condition, coeliac disease, as a result of exposure to it. Over 85% of some Asian sub-populations living in Europe are intolerant to dairy, yet it sells on every street corner. By labelling a product appropriately, including with allergen information, EU regulators believe that consumers can avoid being exposed to foods that might harm them, or which they choose to avoid for cultural or other reasons. All this makes it difficult for us Europeans to understand why the same ‘right to know’ has not been provided through US law to allow Americans to decide if they want to consume, or avoid, GM foods.

Given the fact that the precautionary principle has been at the focus of trade disputes between the US and EU, and is viewed by the biotech industry as a stumbling block and by anti-GM environmentalists as a safeguard, it’s unsurprising that it should come under increasing scrutiny.

UK Commons Select Committee consultation

Remembering that the UK government has been a long-standing supporter of GM crops, it’s now interesting that a Select Committee of the UK Parliament should be tasked with undertaking a consultation.

The biotech industry trade association, Europabio, has long been concerned over what it sees as misuse of the precautionary principle. Quoting, Europabio says says: “The identification and evaluation of this threat should be based on sound scientific risk assessment and logical reasoning and should be compatible with current scientific knowledge. Application of the precautionary principle should be triggered only by peer reviewed data, reports and studies and not by speculative stories and articles.”

With this in mind, is it any wonder that the biotech industry has worked so hard to silence Dr Arpad Pusztai and Prof Gilles-Eric Séralini?

ANH-Intl submits comments to UK consultation

We submitted brief comments to the UK consultation today. We argue it’s not the precautionary principle itself that has acted as a brake to GM approvals when compared with some other parts of the world; it is, in fact, public distaste for the technology. An expensive media machine has been trying its damnedest for some years to sway the public to become more sympathetic to GM crops, but it’s made little difference to public opinion. There’s something quite fundamental about feeling comfortable about growing crops and eating foods based on genetic material that has been deliberately altered by introduction of genes from unrelated species. Nature might share its genes in specific ways, but this doesn’t mean humans can do it without untoward consequences. And which scientists’ views should we listen to most: ecologists or biotechnologists? We’ll leave you to consider who might be more qualified and experienced to provide a more informed response.

Where to from here?

Over more than a decade, Big Biotech has been desperately trying to show that GM crops are bioequivalent to conventional ones, i.e. there is no information to suggest there are any greater risks. They do this by limiting the type of research conducted, ignoring any of the published science that demonstrates evidence of harm to the environment or humans and by destroying the reputations and credibility of those who conduct such independent research.

The biotech industry believes that the European Foods Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) slow and onerous evaluation of dossiers of GM crops is the result of misuse of the precautionary principle. Ironically, along with many others, we believe this process is still inadequate to identify risks or hazards of the technology, owing to the nature and quality of data submitted. Leading scientists are increasingly convinced that some of the issues of greatest concern, such as risk from ‘intractable’ proteins in GM foods, cannot yet be identified using existing techniques used in regulatory assessments of GM crops, even in the EU.

Rest assured, we’ll report back once the Commons Select Committee has issued its own report on the fate of the precautionary principle in relation to GM foods.

Depending on the outcome, British citizens may have little option other than to take to the streets. An outcry of unprecedented scale may be the only thing to stop the biotech juggernaut if the Select Committee does not see sense.

Non-Brits need to watch this space very carefully, and see which way their governments are leaning.


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