Reinvigorating Genetically Modified Crops: Poor Farmers in Developing Nations Will Benefit If the United States Asserts Itself in the International Arena to Develop and Promote Biotechnology

By Paarlberg, Robert L. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Reinvigorating Genetically Modified Crops: Poor Farmers in Developing Nations Will Benefit If the United States Asserts Itself in the International Arena to Develop and Promote Biotechnology


Paarlberg, Robert L., Issues in Science and Technology


In August 2002, government officials in the United States were shocked when Zambia, which was on the verge of a major food crisis, began to refuse the import of free U.S. corn as food aid, because some of that corn might be "genetically modified" (GM). This was the same corn that U.S. citizens had been consuming and that the United Nations World Food Programme had been distributing in Africa--including Zambia--since 1996. In short order, three other countries facing possible famine in the region--Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Malawi--also decided to reject U.S. corn as food aid unless the corn was milled to prevent it from being planted. As a reason for their refusals, Zambia and the other countries cited the fear that if any GM corn imported as food aid was planted by farmers instead, they would lose their current status as "GM-free" countries, as designated by importers in the European Union (EU). This loss, the governments worried, would compromise their ability in the future to export crops and foods to count ries in the EU, where GM products are unpopular and more tightly regulated.

The United Nations was able to replace most of the rejected corn shipments to Zambia with non-GM corn from Tanzania and South Africa, but not before hardships in the country increased. As but one sign of such hardship, in January 2003 some 6,000 hungry people in one rural town overpowered an armed police officer to loot a storehouse filled with U.S. corn that they heard the government was soon going to insist had to be taken out of the country.

These events persuaded trade officials in Washington that the more restrictive GM-food policies that had taken hold in Europe were now a threat not just to U.S. commercial farm commodity sales but also to the efficient international movement of food aid for famine relief. The United States renewed calls for the EU to relax its regulatory and import restrictions on GM crops and foods. U.S. officials pointed out that scientists in Europe had been unable to find any evidence of added risk to human health or the environment from any GM crop variety developed to date. For example, in 2001 the EU Commission for Health and Consumer Affairs released a summary of 81 scientific studies of GM foods conducted over a 15-year period. None of the studies--all financed by the EU, not private industry--found any scientific evidence of added harm to humans or the environment. In December 2002, the French Academies of Sciences and Medicine drew a similar conclusion in a report that said that "there has not been a health proble m--or damage to the environment" from GM crops. This report blamed the rejection and over-regulation of GM technologies in Europe on what it called a "propagation of erroneous information."

Early in 2003, the United States moved closer to bringing to the World Trade Organization (WTO) a formal challenge of EU regulations regarding GM foods and crops, particularly a five-year EU moratorium on new GM crop approvals. But the immediate chance of success is poor. Although the United States has a solid scientific and legal case, the political and commercial foundation for challenging the EU on these products is currently quite weak. Even if the United States wins such a challenge, the likely result will be no change in EU regulations and a continued spread, into the developing world, of highly precautionary EU-style regulations on GM foods and crops.

This outcome would not necessarily be a calamity for U.S. farmers. It might only mean turning the clock back to 1995, the "birthday" of the first GM crop, and returning to the use of non-GM seeds by corn and soybean farmers. U.S. farm income likely would dip slightly, because production costs would increase as the need for insecticides and herbicides increased, but farmers would adapt. The situation would be more problematic for the big corporations that originally developed GM crops, as they would lose expected returns on their major investments in research and development. …

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