The discussion about the possible dangers of genetically modified organisms started in 1974. Then, the molecular biologist and Nobel Laureate Paul Berg performed the first genetic recombination experiment. It was designed to modify the DNA of the cancer-causing monkey virus SV40. However, at the time, his colleagues dissuaded him from performing the final step of the experiment, the introduction of the modified DNA in a strain of E. Coli bacterium. E. Coli bacteria live in the human intestinal tract; the danger of infection by a cancer-causing bacterium was deemed too great. That same year molecular biologists met at the famous Asilomar Conference to hammer out safety rules for recombinant DNA research.
For almost two decades recombinant DNA research remained under the radar of the general public. But with the introduction of the first large-scale field trials of genetically modified crops during the 1990s in 19 European countries, the public quickly became involved in the discussion. Brandished as “Frankenfood,” the rejection of GM food became widespread in Europe.
An independent social researcher based in Vienna, Austria, called Franz Seifert, has a strong interest for European attitudes towards food products based on genetically modified (GM) organisms. He developed this interest as a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, when in 1997 he participated in the Eurobarometer research project investigating public opinion of GM crops in Europe.
Seifert decided to study the GM debate by approaching it as a controversy. And not, like most, as the study of opinions or a media analysis. Instead, he focussed on its actors, namely the general public and the government. This is how he stumbled back in 1997 on an interesting paradox, first in Austria. “Austria was an interesting case because the government, as all governments in Europe, was supportive of biotechnology,” explains Seifert, “but under the anti-GM pressure from the public, it took on a more sceptical and adverse stance, which it then defended at the European level.”
In subsequent research, Seifert found that similar processes took place in other European countries. “You have a decision system for GM products that is located at the super-national level, while the public works at the national level.” This led to a strange dichotomy. While initially governments were generally in favour of allowing the development of GM organisms (GMO) trials, the destruction of trial fields lead to the withdrawal of the GMO industry from countries such as the UK and field trials ceased. In France, by contrast, their destruction did not stop the field trials. “As long as this activity is going on, there is a lot of debate, a lot of drama,” says Seifert.
Over the years, the field trials, targets of the anti GM movement, have disappeared. GM foods, once present on UK supermarket shelves as GM tomatoes, maize or soya, have also disappeared from the shelves of the retailing chains across Europe. “You can say the activists got what they wanted, and these movements ebbed away,” says Seifert. However, his research also uncovered that Europeans publics did not appear to feel closer to each other because of their shared disdain for GM food.
Today, few people outside anti-GMO activist fuel the debate, according to Claire Marris, senior research fellow from the department of social science, health and medicine at King’s College London, UK. “Over time, each government had a different type of response, and stakeholders, like supermarkets, food producers and NGOs had different responses,” says Marris. However, she believes that saying that the public has any influence on GMO decisions is now “meaningless.”
The debate is now stalled, as it appears that the anti-GM stance has prevailed with a number of GM crops stuck in the EU approval pipeline. Today, most of the 100,000 ha grown commercially in Europe are located in Spain. They are mainly crops called Bt corn, designed to poison insect pests. And in contrast to the United States, it looks as if the situation will remain in favour of the anti-GMO lobbyists. To answer consumer’s demand for greater transparency–such as labelling GMO products– “in Europe the manufacturers have been forced to be more explicit about the way the food has been made than in the US,” says Steve Fuller, a sociologist at the University of Warwick, UK. “In the US it is whether the food is going to kill you; that is the bottom line,” he adds.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Ernest Morales