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Bush v. Europe

The administration sues the European Union over genetically-modified foods.

12:00 AM, May 28, 2003 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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AFRICANS ARE STARVING, American farmers are going out of business, and the administration says Europe's to blame.

In a suit brought to the WTO earlier this month, the Bush administration alleges that the E.U.'s five-year moratorium on the approval of new genetically-modified (GM) foods violates the rules of the WTO. In addition, the plaintiff adds, the "unfounded, and unscientific fears" of Europeans have kept developing countries in Africa from investing in enhanced crops.

The United States is joined in the suit by Canada, Argentina, and Egypt. Joining as third-parties are Australia, Chile, Columbia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Uruguay.

In a press conference last week, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said, "In places where food is scarce or climates can be harsh, increased agricultural productivity through biotechnology can spell the difference between life and death, between health and disease for millions of the world's poorest people."

Zoellick cited several examples of the E.U.'s ban negatively impacting the developing world, including banana growers in Uganda who "refused to plant a disease-resistant type of banana because of fears that it would jeopardize exports to Europe."

Last August, several African countries briefly refused badly needed food aid from the United States because they feared if they did so that Europeans would cease to accept African imports. (The grain was later accepted after it was milled to prevent its use as seed rather than for direct consumption. So much for teaching a man to fish.)

The best evidence, Zoellick said, for the lack of real danger from GM foods was noted last year by the French Academies of Science and Medicine: "Millions of North Americans have been eating biotech food every day for years and not a single adverse health consequence has been documented." He points out that the average European tourist seems to recognize the weight of this evidence, since one doesn't see them "coming to America lugging suitcases stuffed with food."

Dr. Diran Makinde, Dean of the School of Agriculture at Venda University in South Africa who spoke at Tuesday's press conference, bolstered the U.S. case with an account of Namibians who "refused to import South African yellow maize for its livestock because Europe will not take it."

But these arguments haven't swayed European officials. Tony van der Haegen, a food safety expert for the European Union, was quoted in the New York Times saying that administration officials have been "a bit unfair to whip Europeans" and pointed out that Europe has never taken any official action to block food aid. Other officials have called the suit "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded, and politically unhelpful."

It will take the WTO about 18 months to process the suit. European Union Health Commissioner David Byrne has called the administration's timing "eccentric." He claims "the finalization process is imminent" for several new GM products whose applications have been pending.

And the case must seem eccentric indeed if E.U. officials believe what they have been saying publicly--that a moratorium on GM foods never existed. Pascal Lamy, the top European trade official, said, "The U.S. claims that there is a so-called moratorium, but the fact is that the E.U. has authorized GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications."

While it is true that there is no official ban on the books, a de facto ban is widely recognized. Europe does buy some biotech crops--soybeans, for example, were approved before the ban and continue to be sold in Europe. But until last year, the European Union hadn't approved a single new GM product since 1998. Since then, only two applications for new products have passed muster.

In contrast, soybeans, corn, and cotton genetically modified to withstand herbicides make up a significant portion of the U.S. food supply. In the United States 75 percent of soybeans, 71 percent of cotton, and 34 percent of corn are genetically modified, according to the Department of Agriculture. In 1998, the United States exported $63 million worth of corn to Europe. Last year, the exports were down to $12.5 million; U.S. farmers lose an estimated total of $300 million each year due to the ban.

Unfortunately, a win for the United States in the WTO might not make much of a difference in the short run. At Zoellick's press conference, nearly all of the questions from reporters were about an E.U. proposal to impose strict labeling and tracing standards on GM foods. Zoellick stuck to his guns and said only "our emphasis today is on the moratorium."