Genetically Modified Organisms Still Source of US-EU Tension
Genetically Modified Organisms Still Source of US-EU Tension


The simmering battle between the United States and the European Union (EU) over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has entered a new phase. On July 1st, 2003, the European Parliament ended its controversial moratorium on new GMO crop approvals, but replaced it with food “traceability and labeling” rules that are expected to be at least as contentious.

Under the moratorium, the EU had effectively banned GMO foods since 1998, by refusing to approve any new licenses for their production or import. American biotech firms and farmers long complained that this policy unfairly restricted trade in agricultural products, in violation of World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. Congress pushed for action on their grievances, and in May the U.S. government initiated litigation at the WTO regarding the EU policy. While the new European decision to move to traceability and labeling rules will end the moratorium, and in doing so make the May WTO request moot, U.S. parties will nonetheless remain unhappy.

At the heart of the dispute are the striking differences in the way that U.S. and EU authorities frame their arguments. To the United States, the GMO policy debate is about trade, while to the EU it is one of public safety.

The American approach treats genetic engineering of foods as a natural progression of the breeding of plant and animal species that humans have been engaged in for thousands of years. As long as a new food is shown to be without immediate harmful effects it is assumed to be safe and is authorized for sale to the public.

To U.S. policy makers, GMOs fulfill the same purpose that hybrid foods always have throughout history: to improve the quality of human life. The U.S. Department of Agriculture argues that biotech developments can help people by

  1. promoting health through the creation of more nutritious foods;
  2. creating new vaccines that combat animal disease and increase animal livestock production;
  3. fighting world hunger by creating high-yield crops; and
  4. protecting the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers.

President George W. Bush has touted the role GMOs can play in fighting hunger in a May 2003 address: “By widening the use of new high-yield bio-crops, we can dramatically increase agricultural productivity and feed more people across [Africa].” In the same speech he also leveled the charge that EU officials were allowing prejudice to obstruct the vital humanitarian goal of beating world hunger. “They have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears,” he said.

Because the U.S. government accepts GMOs as a normal product, it views any resistance to their production and sale as an inappropriate trade restriction. However, the EU, basing its position on public attitudes, does not necessarily accept GMOs as natural.

A study released in early June by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that 89 percent of French, 81 percent of German, and 65 percent of British respondents felt that GMOs were “bad because they could hurt health and the environment.” They are suspicious of “Frankenfoods” that they feel might be the result of genetic tinkering and are fearful of what they perceive as the unknowable long-term consequence of foods made from GMOs.

Recent scares in the European agricultural sector over Mad Cow Disease (or Bovine Spongiform Encephalitis, BSE), Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and dioxin contamination have also created an uneasiness in Europeans over the safety of their food supply.

EU regulatory authorities have reacted to this environment by adopting what they refer to as the “precautionary principle” in evaluating the safety of new foods. Under the precautionary principle, scientific research must be exhaustive and prove beyond doubt that a food product is safe before it can be approved for production and sale.

In practice, research rarely can answer all scientific questions about a product until data has been collected for many years. As a result, applying the precautionary principle to genetically altered foods can cause their approval to be delayed for years or even decades.

The United States flatly rejects the precautionary principle as a legitimate basis for scientific evaluation. In the recent words of John D. Graham, an official at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, “We consider [the precautionary principle] to be a mythical concept, perhaps like a unicorn.” U.S. officials believe the principle to be merely a tactic of protectionism, used to compensate for European suspicion of agro-technology and the EU’s lack of technological capability in the field.

They also contend that the precautionary principle directly violates WTO agreements that the EU has previously agreed to. According to the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement that was adopted by WTO members as part of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations (1986-1993), countries have a right to set special controls on food products, “based on scientific principles.” This means that a product such as a GMO must be scientifically shown to be harmful before it may be restricted; U.S. officials point out that this “sound science” principle, based directly on the SPS agreement as written, contradicts the EU’s precautionary principle that says a product must be proven safe before being approved for sale to the public.

In fact it is not only access to the European market that worries the U.S. During a drought last year, several African nations refused U.S. food aid because they were concerned that seeds of GMO containing foods in the packages might get mixed into domestic agricultural systems, making their exports ineligible for entry into the EU. To U.S. officials this was a dangerous sign of how EU rules might “creep” out of Europe to threaten American food exports.

The newly approved “traceability and labeling” regime will thus not end the dispute. Scheduled to come into force over the next six months, it will require businesses, including U.S. exporters to the EU to keep detailed records on the origins and movements of GMO foods and clearly label them as such when offering them for sale to the public. EU officials say this will allow them to track food products “from the farm to the fork,” ensuring the safety of the European food supply, but GMO proponents in the U.S. disagree.

According to American Soybean Association president Dwain Ford, the traceability and labeling regime is a “trade barrier, pure and simple.” Farmers fear the rules, which will apply to all products that are more than 0.9 percent GMO, will raise their production costs by as much as 50 percent as they are forced to greatly expand their documentation procedures. The resulting price increase for consumers in the EU, in addition to the stigma attached to a GMO label, will drastically decrease demand for their product.

EU officials, while acknowledging that the rules could mean a drop in sales for U.S. producers, point out that any effects will be ultimately determined by free consumer choice. Considering the strength of the American agricultural lobby, the objections of U.S. government experts, and the fact that the European changes will take place during the heat of next year’s presidential election, more tension between the United States and EU over GMOs is likely.

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