Picture yourself in the heart of Rome, a short stroll from the Colosseum, the Forum and the Pantheon. Walk 50 ft. in any direction and there is a quaint restaurant — Italian, of course — with waiters working to whisk you to their best tables.
It's every tourist's dream — a Roman holiday with a menu and wine list fit for Caesar. Foods are fresh, made from products likely bought through a large co-op that services restaurants and delis from the Tuscany valley to the country's southern tip.
Unfortunately for U.S. corn and soybean producers, biotech crops don't make up nearly enough of the food served. Cooking oil, salad dressing and processed foods may include some biotech soy. And some meat products come from livestock fed biotech soymeal. But the market for more U.S. soybeans and corn could increase if not for continuous efforts to label biotech foods as “bad.”
Attacks on biotech foods — whether from Greenpeace or other environmental groups — or simply wanting homegrown foods, has made many Italians and other Europeans anti-biotech.
Just ask Angelo Megelo, an associate at Restaurante Rosa Rosae, one of those Roman dining establishments with a romantic atmosphere.
“The Italian people are different than any people in the world,” says Megelo, whose English makes a Yank feel right at home. “They eat much food. There is the appetizer, the ‘first plate,’ the ‘second plate,’ then dessert, wine and other drinks. People relax here. They sit here for two or three hours.
“They want original Italian food. All pizza and pasta is made from Italian products bought from several big markets,” he says. “We buy them fresh daily. We buy only Italian. That's what the people want.”
There is belief that the European Union (EU) moratorium against biotech events will be lifted sometime in 2004. More consumers are apt to accept biotech foods, (see “Europeans Views On Biotech Shift,” p. 4, August 2003). Even so, commodity groups know educating Europeans about the safety of U.S.-produced biotech soybeans, corn and other foods must continue. And with consistent attacks by environmental groups, efforts to bring more consumers around could be as choppy as a canal in Venice during a thunderstorm.
Great Britain seems just as skeptical as other EU countries. A September 2003 “debate” that gathered the opinions of more than 37,000 people showed that a huge majority of Englanders don't want biotech ingredients in their crumpets.
Even if the moratorium is lifted, the European Parliament adopted new regulations this past summer. They call for mandatory traceability and mandatory labeling of biotech or biotech-derived products. That's a move the American Soybean Association (ASA) believes will further restrict access for U.S. soybeans and soybean products while negatively impacting EU consumers.
“It's a sad day for the world when European politicians decide they know more than the scientific studies about food safety,” says ASA President Ron Heck, soybean producer from Perry, IA. He says the new rules will inevitably force food manufacturers to continue the trend to “reformulate their products rather than be stigmatized by a biotech label.”
Dee Vaughan, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) president, is also against the new labeling and traceability rules. He says NCGA is working with the U.S. Grains Council to educate the EU governments, farmers and consumers on the safety of food produced from biotech genes.
“We have a joint mission with the U.S. Grains Council each year. We take U.S. corn growers to EU countries to interact with EU farmers, government officials and consumer groups,” says Vaughan, a Dumas, TX, grower. “NCGA has also been doing farmer and staff exchange visits with the French corn growers association (Association Générale des Producteurs de Mais) as part of our effort.” The French association sent representatives to a recent Commodity Classic, while NCGA representatives attended a French corn growers convention to speak on biotech safety.
“We also participate in the international biotech conference with the U.S. Grains Council, which is hosted and funded by the Nebraska Corn Development, Utilization and Marketing Board and the Iowa Corn Promotion Board,” says Vaughan.
A biotech forum last fall in Des Moines, IA, brought foreign buyers, policy makers and journalists to the Corn Belt. They also visited farms growing biotech crops, grain-handling facilities, processing plants and supermarkets to demonstrate how U.S. agriculture and the food industry work to provide a safe and wholesome food supply.
Bob Callanan, ASA communications director, adds that during a 2002 conference in Germany, EU leaders concluded that there were no scientific reasons that GM soybeans should not be used.
“Important decisions on health and safety should be based on sound science,” he says. “ASA is still making efforts to make this known, but some things are just out of our control.”
We are seeing more acceptance of GM (genetically modified) products by EU consumers each year, says Vaughan. “But we must continue in our efforts to enlighten them (EU consumers) of biotech foods' value in providing a safe and healthy food supply.”
Adds ASA's Heck, “Europeans are being misled into believing they will have a safer food supply, when, in fact, new rules on traceability and mandatory labeling will lead to a dramatic decrease in food safety. In the end, the EU's new rules will lead to greater reliance on conventional and EU-grown crops, which means more pesticide use, greater environmental impact, less conservation of topsoil and fuel, and overall decreased food safety.”
In the meantime, the next time biotech proponents from U.S. agriculture and industry are in Rome, they should consider tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain. Lots of luck may be needed if U.S. farmers are to deliver more of their soybeans and corn into Europeans' diets.
Britains Uneasy About Biotech
A United Kingdom (UK) survey, conducted by the Genetic Modification Nation (GM Nation), did not fare well for biotech foods. GM Nation is a group funded at some £500,000 by the British government to obtain consumer opinion of biotech foods. It held hundreds of meetings ranging from small gatherings in village halls and pubs to large conferences in towns and cities.
More than 37,000 people registered their views with GM Nation at these meetings and on its Web site (www.gmpublicdebate.org).
Malcolm Grant, chairman of the independent GM Debate Steering Board, says the main messages from the open debate and discussion groups are that people in the UK are generally uneasy about biotech products. The further people go into biotech issues, the harder their attitudes become and the more intense their concerns. There is little support for early commercialization of biotech crops. There's also widespread public mistrust of government and of the multinational companies involved in biotech products. Generally, people want to know more and want more research to be done.
GM Nation adds, “When given the opportunity to engage in GM (genetically modified) issues, people do not rely exclusively on official sources or everyday media. They choose sources they trust and that mean something in their personal lives.”
The London-based Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), which represents Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto and Syngenta, believes the GM Nation report may have been biased.
“It is clear from the GM Nation ‘stimulus material’ that the opinions of those ideologically opposed to the technology were given equal weight to carefully researched, factual evidence about GM food and GM crops,” says Paul Rylott, ABC chairman. “The concept of a broad exchange of evidence and debate that would allow people still uncertain about GM products to make their own informed decisions was not achieved. GM Nation also failed in its aim of ‘involving the public in the important decisions’ and ‘ensuring that all voices are heard.’”
Rylott says that, when the public is asked in a statistically valid way, “they can see why GM crops are so widely grown in other countries.”
So there is still work to be done to convince Europeans that biotech crops are safe for human consumption and helping preserve the environment through the need for far fewer chemicals to control weeds and insects.