There they stand in the public square, in their white biohazard suits, gas masks in place, protesting against genetically modified crops in Europe.

Heaven only knows how much time and effort environmental activist groups have spent over the past several years opposing crops and food products containing GMOs. Europe particularly has been a hotbed of opposition to this technology, resulting in an avalanche of sensationalistic media coverage and even destruction of crop plots and research facilities by eco-terrorists.

But the first chink has been made in their armor.

In late September, officials of the European Union approved both the sale and planting of 17 strains of genetically modified corn in every one of its 25 member states.

A Friends of the Earth spokesperson said the EU is attempting to force more genetically modified foods onto the market and “is caving in to the bullying of the United States… against the will of the European public.”

But the barn door is open, and as more and more evidence accrues that GM crops are safe, the average consumer will — as has been the case in the United States — accept them as yet another step in the use of technology to make agriculture more efficient and productive and to insure an adequate world food supply.

At about the same time as the EU decision, representatives to a conference in Africa were debating, yet again, the GMO crops issue. There were all the tired platitudes about greedy multinational corporations putting poor, small farmers out of business, unfair competition, loss of markets, environmental safety, exaggerating the benefits of GMOs for economic, political, and social reasons, and blah, blah, blah.

It was all put in perspective, however, by a delegate from Mauritia who declared: “It's a fantastic technology. All new technology comes with some risk. Our challenge is to contain the risk.”

In the United States, where genetically engineered crops have been grown on a large scale for nearly a decade, John W. Radin, national program leader of plant physiology and risk assessment for USDA's Agricultural Research Service, says careful monitoring has established “no discernible ill effects” to offset the benefits of reductions in pesticide use and costs and promise of “a tremendous array of future advances, such as improved nutritional balance, elimination of trans fats, and enhanced disease resistance and cold tolerance.”

ARS committed $24 million in fiscal 2004 for biotechnology risk assessment and risk mitigation research, covering such issues as allergenicity of GM foods to ways to block movement of genes from GM crops to non-GM crops.

The government is not alone in risk assessment research. Companies producing genetically engineered seeds or genes also collect masses of specific information about their products to establish safety.

“If genetic engineering is to fulfill its potential,” Radin says, it must be the safest way of meeting the goal of providing useful, important agricultural products to feed and clothe the world — now, and well into the future.” Moreover, he says, it must be accepted by the public that buys and uses the products. “Until both these goals are reached, our work is not done.”