GM fudge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 February, 2001, 12:00am

Two familiar slogans spring to mind as the Environment and Food Bureau puts its proposals on genetically modified (GM) food up for public consultation: 'You get what you pay for' and 'You are what you eat'.

Consumers would definitely like to know what they are eating and an increasing number are prepared to pay extra to be given the choice. But what they are looking for is a firm government lead on the problem; so far that has not been forthcoming.

In the age of bio-technology, only the food industry knows exactly what is in the products on the supermarket shelves. Consumers who worry about processed foods, pesticides, antibiotics injected into animals and the increasing number of GM products, can now choose from a wider variety of organic items.

However, such choice comes at a premium. The yield on naturally grown crops is modest and demand is a fraction of that for the cheaper, mass-produced alternative.

Thanks to a number of high-profile scares in recent years, local consumers have a raised awareness of hazards surrounding modern food production. But the new bureau, brought in as a replacement for the two municipal councils, is no more decisive in giving a lead than its predecessors. At least 6,000 food products on sale here are believed to contain GM soybeans or corn. Yet the true number of such items on the shelves, or their precise GM content, remains a mystery.

The bureau's favoured proposal, to introduce a voluntary labelling system before making it mandatory, is something of a fudge. It may mean that willing firms can start labelling immediately without waiting for legislation to be passed. Those who do so will steal a march on their competitors, but they may have to increase prices to cover the cost of testing, and that could be a disincentive in a highly competitive market.

Besides, the bureau's decision to delay mandatory labelling will not allay the fears of those who feel GM foods are untried and should not be consumed in quantity. The decision to set a five per cent GM content level before labelling is necessary will probably be regarded as on the high side.

In Europe, Australia and New Zealand the ceiling is set at one per cent, although rules are less stringent in the US, where the GM food debate has so far been muted. Moreover, multinationals dominate the food industry there and have invested heavily in bio-technology. Certainly the US has not experienced the food scares that have plagued the EU, or indeed the SAR.

But the deadline for legislation is only two years away. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a global food authority, has set a 2003 timetable that the Government has already undertaken to accept. It is up to the public to set the standards they feel safest with.

Whatever can be said against it, there is no denying that in a world of shrinking agricultural land, an impending population crisis and with famine and starvation rampant in the poorer corners of the world, increasing crop yield has to be a major target. But there must be a choice. And some consumers may think that even one per cent of GM food on their plate is more bio-technology than they feel comfortable with.