The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


Global Policy Polarization and GM Food

Lydia Zepeda
University of Wisconsin

Current scientific evidence indicates that only a few applications of genetically modified (GM) food pose human health risks and some of these only for a small segment of the population. Despite this, most government’s policies treat all GM food as though they were the same. The policy environment regarding GM food regulation and labelling falls into two camps. In the U.S., the burden of identifying potential problems is the responsibility of the manufacturer and any labelling of food is voluntary. The free market approach has been explicitly adopted by a few other countries, but many developing countries implicitly use such an approach because they lack any national policy towards GM food. For most of the rest of the developed world, notably the EC, and middle income countries, the burden on manufacturers is to provide evidence that the products are safe and labelling is mandatory. There are policy variations based on threshold levels of GM material and whether the foods are used for human consumption or contain sufficient genetic material (such as oil).

In both environments, policy makers are making decisions regarding regulation of GM food using scientific information. What greatly differs between the policy environments is the level at which decisions are made. In the U.S., low level political appointees make the policy decisions. In the European Community, elected officials make the decisions. In both cases, scientists provide advice and council, but clearly the incentives and accountability of policy makers are different.

Given that most GM food applications involve foods that are traded and indeed are the major trade commodities, differences in GM policies can cost farmers markets. Indeed, it is estimated that U.S. farmers lost $300 million in overseas sales in 1999 to GM corn alone. Clearly, there are strong public welfare and efficiency arguments for having consistent labelling and clear market information.

This paper explores differences in GM food policy among countries as well as proposals for GM food regulation at the country level, within the U.S. at the state level and international agreements. Economic, social and political forces motivating these differences in GM food policy will be examined. In particular, the role of public risk perception will be highlighted. An argument for consistent international standards to facilitate trade will be discussed.

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