More Than a Food Fight

By Moore, Julia A. | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

More Than a Food Fight

Moore, Julia A., Issues in Science and Technology

If the United States and Europe cannot settle their disagreements over agricultural biotechnology, the fallout will extend far beyond the food business.

From some perspectives, the news for agricultural biotechnology boosters seems good. Latest figures show farmers sowing genetically modified (GM) crops with a vengeance. Over half of the U.S. soybean crop, 25 percent of corn, and over 70 percent of cotton output are from GM seed. In 2000, annual global plantings of transgenic crops exceeded 100 million acres for the first time: an increase of 11 percent over 1999 and a huge gain over the 4 million acres planted in 1996. And finally, in February the European Parliament paved the way for ending Europe's de facto three-year moratorium on new approvals of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by ratifying a revised directive (90/220/EEC) governing their environmental release and commercialization.

Then why do we hear so much doom and gloom in the press? Why is the International Herald Tribune running a page-one story headlined "For Biotech, a Lost War"? Why are two of Britain's top three food retailers announcing that their house-brand meat products will be produced only from animals that do not eat GM feed and that they are committed to offering non-GM dairy products? And what do we make of the Clinton administration's secretary of agriculture's warning to incoming secretary Ann Veneman that GM food will be her top priority. "Biotechnology is going to be thrust on her," according to Dan Glickman, "whether she wants it or not ... like it was on me, big time."

Veneman's counterpart in Germany is Renate Kunast, a newly appointed superminister for food, agriculture, and consumer protection and coleader of the Green Party, who is determined to steer agriculture "back to nature." Her views on GM foods are doubtless consistent with those of fellow Green Party boss and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who recently said: "Europeans do not want genetically modified food--period. It does not matter what research shows; they just do not want it and that has to be respected."

Robert Zoellick, President George W. Bush's new trade representative, will have his hands full. The de facto moratorium on approval of new GM foods won't be lifted until after the European Commission formally publishes a whole raft of legislative proposals that include requirements for traceability and labeling of GM products; measures that will take time to develop and that U.S. exporters will find difficult and costly to meet. And immediately after the Parliament's vote on directive 90/220, France and five other European Union (EU) countries issued statements saying they want the moratorium maintained.

When asked about GM crops during the presidential campaign, George W. Bush responded that, "The next president must carry a simple and unequivocal message to foreign governments: We won't tolerate favoritism and unfair subsidies for your national industries. I will fight to ensure that U.S. products are allowed entry into the European Union and that accepted scientific principles are applied in enacting regulations. American farmers are without rival in their ability to produce and compete, and the future prosperity of the U.S. farm sector depends in large part on the expansion of global markets for U.S. products."

Before Zoellick's appointment, business and foreign policy pundits were predicting a major trade collision between the United States and Europe over beef, bananas, and "funny plants"; that is, Europe's exclusion of growth hormone-fed U.S. beef, of bananas produced by American-owned companies in Latin America, and of GM foods. Disturbingly, two of these issues hinge on public attitudes toward science in general and public confidence in government science in particular.

Science and trade

The establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, along with breakneck progress in genomics and information technology, helped place science squarely at the center of international economic forums and controversy. …

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More Than a Food Fight


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