Divisions sink US effort on transgenic food

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Posted by Sadie from ? ( on Wednesday, June 04, 2003 at 2:54PM :

Nature 423, 574 (5 June, 2003)

Divisions sink US consensus effort on transgenic food



Hard to swallow: regulations on transgenic food proved a sticking point in US round-table talks.

An ambitious effort to hammer out an agreement between proponents and critics of agricultural biotechnology in the United States has ended in failure.

Two years of talks, convened in 2001 by the Washington-based Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, reached an impasse late last month over the question of whether to ask Congress for legislation to strengthen regulations for transgenic food.

The 18-member panel was set up to produce detailed guidelines for safety standards for genetically modified products. But the ground rules for the panel required unanimous agreement on all issues under consideration before any conclusions would be made public. "It was an extremely ambitious effort," says Margaret Mellon, a panel member and director of the food and environment programme at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington DC. "We were going for the brass ring, and we didn't get it."

One issue that was contentious from the start was whether new laws are needed to guarantee the safety of transgenic food. The biotechnology industry opposes the involvement of Congress in favour of minor administrative changes to the current approval process. But consumer and environmental groups say that the present voluntary system is inadequate and needs a legislative fix. Panel members confirm that disagreement on this point was critical to the failure of the process.

Some observers suggest that the recent trade complaint filed at the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the United States against the European Union (see Nature 423, 369; 2003) might have contributed to the problem by entrenching industry's position. "The case is being made on the grounds that the current regulatory process is safe," says Robert Paarlberg, an expert in international agricultural policy at Wellesley College near Boston. "The industry doesn't want any suggestion that it isn't."

Panel member Richard Caplan, an environmental advocate with the US Public Interest Research Group in Washington DC, says that although the WTO suit was not discussed in the sessions, it could have been a factor. But Mike Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative, says that he strongly doubts whether it made any difference.

The panel's final report, issued on 30 May, left open the possibility of reconvening in 1218 months' time. If consumers outside the United States continue to resist transgenic food, US food exporters might feel pressure to conform to tougher regulation, some panel members say.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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