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Nestlé stands firm over GM crops

Greenpeace's talks with Nestlé were as futile as its protests

(Keystone Archive)

Nestlé has taken the unusual step of meeting opponents of genetically modified foods. The result was stalemate.

Scientific experts from the world's biggest food company held talks with representatives of Greenpeace at the multinational's global headquarters in the Swiss town of Vevey.

The environmentalist group had requested the meeting, after activists in a number of countries in South-East Asia and South America had failed to obtain similar talks with Nestlé's regional subsidiaries. These branches had insisted that any company decisions regarding the use of GM products were taken in Vevey.

Responsible use of gene technology

Nestlé's official strategy is that it "supports a responsible application of gene technology ... based on sound scientific research". It says it only uses ingredients when it has complete confidence in their safety.

So the company was not very receptive to the Greenpeace's message: that it should stop using GM crops and adopt a more favourable attitude towards organic farming.

"We were rather disappointed with the outcome of the meeting," says Clément Tolusso of Greenpeace Switzerland.

"Nestlé has no intention of changing its policy - that is imposing genetically modified food anywhere in the world where the law allows it, and where consumer resistance is not strong," he told swissinfo.

Double standards

Greenpeace accused Nestlé of adopting double standards on this issue. In most of Europe, Nestle does not sell genetically manipulated food, because of national legislation and the opposition of consumers.

However, in countries with no laws regulating the use of GMOs, and with a less well-developed and less well-informed consumer lobby, transgenic ingredients are routinely found in Nestlé products.

Nestlé argues that it is merely giving customers what they want, just as it makes kosher products for Jewish customers and halal ones for Muslims. It claims millions of customers around the world have told it they want GM products.

Safety evaluation

The company says all the transgenic crops it uses have to comply with strict safety regulations. It says it backs the view of a number if United Nations agencies and sections of the scientific community that gene technology has the potential to increase yields, thus helping to alleviate chronic food shortages in the developing world.

"The WHO, the FAO, OECD and numerous independent scientific bodies have concluded that, if they have passed the food safety evaluation procedures, genetically modified crops and ingredients derived from them can be considered safe for consumption. We, of course, concur with that," says Nestlé Group spokesman Marcel Rubin.

"Greenpeace - and we asked at the meeting - has never been able to prove scientifically that there is any risk linked to these products," he told swissinfo.

Dialogue of the deaf

The environmentalist group has, though, passed on the concerns of many in the scientific community, that that the safety evaluation procedures are not stringent enough, given the unpredictable effects genetic modification might have on the nutritional status of food.

It has also mentioned the dangers of cross-pollination, which has given rise to new disease- and pesticide-resistant "superweeds", as well as the health fears surrounding the consumption of too many foods derived from antibiotic-resistant organisms.

Greenpeace may have got its foot in the Nestlé door on Wednesday, but what ensued was a dialogue of the deaf.

The environmentalists' principal hop for a change in Nestlé strategy would be a massive groundswell of public opinion in the developing world against GM products.

"We are not going to force people to consume what they don't want," Rubin says.

by Roy Probert

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