Sowing (Genetically Modified) Seeds of Doubt ? The Labelling Debate and International Attempts to Resolve the Crisis

Date01 January 2008
AuthorDeirdre Kelly
‘Sowing (Genetically Modified)
Seeds of Doubt – The Labelling Debate and
International Attempts to Resolve the Crisis.’
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people
themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enoug h to exercise tha t
control within a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them,
but to inform their discretion.
Thomas Jefferson
The debate over genetically modified agriculture has arguably become one
of the significant en vironmental and soci al issues over the past deca de.
Arousing strong sentiments among politicians in the international domain,
genetically modified food (‘GM’ food) has also proven a focus of passionate
resistance by opponents and equally passionate support by those in favour.1
The views of both groups are diametrically opposing, with the proponents
of GM food claiming ‘a new green revolu tion’, a nd the dissidents coun -
tering that ‘Frankenstein foods’ pose potentia l health risks for consumers,
and unknown ec ological conseq uences for the e nvironment.2San dwiched
between the rhetorical excesses of these opposing camps are real questions
about the benefits and dangers of this technology.
Any fair e xamination of biotechnolo gy in agric ulture should acknowl -
edge the potential be nefits of GM food. In general, genetic engineering
provides economic advantages to farmers by improving crop r esistance to
herbicides and pesticides, and it endows great social and medical advantages
to poor countries and malnourished individuals by manipulating the
expression of specific crop traits.3However, any potential long-term health
1Compton, Michelle, ‘Applying World Trade Organization Rules to the La belling of
Genetically Modified Foods’, 15 Pace International Law Review 359 2003.
3 Nelkin, Dorothy, ‘The International Challenge of Genetically Modified Organism
Regulation’, 8 N.Y.U. Envtl.L.J 523 (2000).
2Fredland, John, ‘Unlabel their Frankenstein Foods!: Evaluating a U.S. Challenge to the
European Commission’s Labelling Requirements for Food Products Containing
Genetically-Modified Organisms’ 33 Vanderbilt Journal of International Law 183 2000.
3Galant, Karl R. ‘Labelling Limbo: Why Genetically Modified Food Continue to Duck
Mandatory Disclosure’ 42 Hous L.Rev. 125 (2005–2006).
Kelly:Layout 1 28/05/2009 15:58 Page 93
effect of G M food is u nknown, and it has been posited that uncontrolled
use of the technology is ecological roulette.4
Against this backdrop regulators must ma ke choices on the fron tiers of
scientific knowledge and choose among these competing, plausible, though
largely hypothetical assessments of risk, and must find a balancing act that
‘unleashes the bene fits of GM food, whilst avoiding the dangers.’5It is
therefore unsurprising that assessments of the risks and benefits related to
GM food vary substantially between countries and regions, as do the
regulatory approaches.
Interestingly, the two largest econo mies in the world, the United States
and the European Union, ha ve adopted different approaches on the
marketing of genetically modified food. The EU deals with biotechnology
as a “nove l process requiring novel regulatory provisions”,6and its
regulations follow an approach based on the ‘precautionary principle’ and
‘consumers right to know’ with stringent approval, labelling and traceability
standards on any food produced from or derived from GM ingredients. In
contrast, the U.S . regulat ion appro ach is based on differ ences in the end
product, and includes a voluntary safe ty consultation and voluntary
labelling guidelines for GM food. Most other developed count ries such as
Japan, Canada and Australia have introduced intermediary regulations
between these two approaches.
Unsurprisingly, the diverging regulatory systems of these two countries
have hampered international trade in this sector.7The US have contested the
legality of these measures claiming that the regulat ions are a veiled non-
tariff barrier to trade, and therefore in violation of the World Trade
Organization Agreements.8
At an international level, these divergences have animated a lively ‘food
fight’, played out simultaneously over the past decade in three major
arenas,9namely the Dispute Settlement Body of the World Trade
Organization (WTO); the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is part of
the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biodiversity, and the Codex
4Bratspies, Rebec ca, ‘The Illusion of Care: Regulat ion, Uncertainty and Genetically
Modified Food Crops’ 10 New York University Envir onmental Law Journal 300
5Ibid. at p 299.
6Gaskell,G.‘Worlds Apart? The R eception of Genetically M odified Foods in Europe
and the US’ 285 Sci 384 (1999).
7Zarrilli, Simonetta In ternational Trade in GMOs and GM Produ cts: National and
Multilateral Frameworks’ UNCTAD Paper. [Online] Available at:
en/docs/itcdtab30_en.pdf Accessed: 24 May 2007.
8Schwartz, Brian, ‘WTO and GMOs: Analys ing the European Community’s Recent
Regulations Covering the Labelling of Genetically Modified Organisms’ 25 Michigan
Journal of International Law 771 2004.
9Sand, Peter, ‘Label ling Genetically Modi fied Food – The Right to Know’ RE CIEL
15(2) 2006.
Kelly:Layout 1 28/05/2009 15:58 Page 94

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