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National Post | September 20, 1999 | Carl Honore

LONDON - Right across Britain, discerning dog owners are lining up to buy the latest treat for their pampered pooches: a new dogfood that is free of genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

Graham Rathmore, who owns a small terrier in London, was quoted as saying, "People may think it sounds silly. But if I'm not going to eat GM products, then why should my dog?"

Already famous for their love of animals, the British are gaining a reputation as the world's leading opponents of GM foods.

The story says that while Canadians and Americans seem content to let scientists fiddle with their diet, Europeans, and especially the British, are kicking back against what they call "Frankenstein foods."

Jim Thomas, a campaigner from Greenpeace UK. was quoted as saying, "Anyone cultivating GM crops should be aware that they are not welcome in Europe. The powers that be may support GM foods, but ordinary people clearly don't want them."

Although the European Union allows some modified corn and soybean imports, GM crops are still largely in the trial stage here. Only Spain grows them on a significant scale.

The story adds that ahough claims that genetic modification threatens the environment and human health remain unproved, supermarkets from Leipzig to London have yanked GM goods from their shelves. Protesters who recently ransacked a McDonald's outlet in France have become heroes of the anti-GM movement.

All this is grim news for Canadian farmers who have put their trust in GM technology. This year, 57% of Canada's canola, 35% of its corn and nearly 20% of its soybean crops are genetically modified. If demand in Europe dries up, who outside North America will buy their produce?

The sharp contrast in consumer sentiment on the other side of the Atlantic is not hard to explain.

Europeans have less faith than North Americans in the wonders of science.

A recent string of food scares, from "mad cow" disease in Britain to dioxin-tainted chicken in Belgium, has shaken confidence in the ability of officialdom to police the food industry.

Sociologist Michael Harman was quoted as saying, "Many Europeans have long felt that their culture is under siege from the American juggernaut. Food is just the latest battleground in that cultural war."

Despite the European jitters, GM technology is still being hailed by supporters. Many studies show that modified crops stand up better to disease and pests, require less chemical spraying, deliver higher yields and grow in harsher conditions. Above all, claim supporters, GM foods are safe.

Roger Turner, chairman of Scimac, an industry-wide body that promotes GM crops in Britain, was quoted as saying, "This is the most exhaustively tested agricultural technology we've ever had. Anyone who says otherwise is just scaremongering."

But skeptics remain. Some think much more testing is needed before GM crops are let out of the laboratory. Others believe any genetic modification is an act of vandalism against nature. Bio-tech are opening a Pandora's box, they say.

Citing sporadic studies, critics warn GM crops could become toxic, trigger the emergence of new strains of "superbugs" and "superweeds," or contaminate other plants with their modified genes.