To the editor:

Several articles in the July and August issues of Nature Biotechnology (21, 735–738, 2003; 21, 852–854, 2003) discuss whether the US strategy of forcing the European Union (EU; Brussels, Belgium) to accept GM foods by referring to World Trade Organisation (WTO; Geneva, Switzerland) rules will bear fruit. We do not believe so—rather the opposite.

A central claim in the arguments of both President Bush and US commerce representative Robert B. Zoellick is that the risk of GM foods is negligible. The veracity of that statement, however, depends on what is defined as risk. A common understanding is that risk relates to the environment and human health. On the other hand, recent studies have repeatedly shown that public hesitance also includes a number of ethical issues (e.g., market dominance of a few large companies and GM crops threatening natural or divine orders, refs 1,2). Our worry is that the US government is neglecting widespread concerns of the European public that include more than environmental risk and human health.

Research carried out by our group in Denmark1 indicates that, although many people are confident that the public authorities are able to manage the risks here and now, people are less confident about their ability to handle long-term effects because of the scientific uncertainty. Attempts to conceal these or other limits to scientific knowledge do not prevent controversies from arising; rather, the opposite happens because trust in business, scientific experts and public authorities is undermined (witness the handling of the BSE controversy in the United Kingdom).

In the long run, a policy of openness about the different dimensions of uncertainty would be more likely to increase trust in scientific risk assessment. Of course, this will not guarantee public acceptance of GM food, but experience in Europe shows that transparency and dialog are prerequisites for decreasing concerns about new technology.

The argument that the EU's resistance to GM food has had negative consequences for developing countries, denying them access to a technology that could alleviate food provision, is regarded sympathetically by many among the European public. Indeed, here most people abandon the simple dichotomy between 'unacceptable' GM food and the much more acceptable medical uses. This is because GM foods are seen as a means to help people in distress. Many counter such humanitarian uses, however, by the observation that, in general, GM crops are developed not to benefit people in the developing world, but to make money. Needless to say, according to those who point this out, making money is not in itself an acceptable objective. Thus, the fear is that the benefits will never accrue to those who are at present suffering.