Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Food Bully

Magazine article Foreign Policy in Focus

Food Bully

Article excerpt

The decision by the Bush administration to sue the European Union (EU) over its five-year moratorium on genetically modified (GM) foods has all the earmarks of a "shock and awe" campaign targeted at prying open a major potential market. But the suit before the World Trade Organization (WTO) may be aimed less at the EU than at developing nations, which are far more vulnerable to strong-arm tactics.

Take the case of the reluctant Egyptians.

Egypt had originally joined the suit, along with Argentina and Canada, but, in the face of a domestic backlash over the safety of GM food crops, withdrew. However, it filed a separate Complaint on an EU ban against its GM drought-resistant cotton, joining, at least in spirit, the U.S. action.

Besides responding to popular sentiment, the Egyptians were also nervous over the confrontational tone of the U.S. suit. "The way (the complaint) was announced was like a war with the EU," one Egyptian trade official told the Financial Times, "We can't go to war with the EU. It is 40% of our trade."

Avoiding war with the EU, however, landed them in a shootout with the Americans. Reacting with fury, the U.S. accused the Egyptians of breaking their word and cancelled free trade talks.

According to the Financial Times, Egyptian officials were "stunned" by the U.S. reaction, particularly after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick recently described their country as a "linchpin" for a Middle East free trade agreement and "the heart of the Arab world."

The White House was banking on Egypt to represent the need for GM crops in "developing countries," in particular, Africa. GM crops as a solution to the African famine is one of the major arguments the Bush administration has used against the EU ban.

The Bush administration seems to be applying its "for us or against us" anti-terrorism formula to trade policy, particularly if the country is a developing one like Egypt. Similarly, when Croatia and Thailand raised health objections to GM crops, the U.S. threatened trade sanctions and both countries backed down.

The White House has been more circuitous with big countries, like India and Brazil. In the case of Brazil, U.S. corporations--underwritten by taxpayers--bring politicians and scientists to the U.S. and South Africa to study GM crops. And reaction to India's ban on U.S. GM crops has been muted.

There is much at stake in this fight over biotechnology, and it has nothing to do with alleviating hunger or overcoming famine. The "Big Five" biotech companies--Monsanto, Dupont, Syngenta, Dow Chemical, and Aventis--have invested billions of dollars in research and development. Out of 1085 biotech patents, the Big Five control 937.

The U.S. argues that GM crops represent the new "green revolution" that will allow countries to feed the growing world population. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture's own Economic Research Service found that crop yields were no higher for GM crops than they are for regular crops, and GM crops can be tricky to grow. They were created for huge, American super-farms, not the small-scale agriculture that characterizes most of the developing world. Plus GM seeds cost more, and few poor farmers have access to cash.

The Bush administration presents its GM-friendly policies as a solution to hunger. During his recent tour of Africa, Bush said, "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology. …

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