Since May 2003, the United States, joined by Canada and Argentina, has pursued a World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement process against the European Union (EU) regarding its de facto moratorium banning biogenetically altered food crops.
The main opponents of such crops include the usual "environmental" organizations for whom any progress toward eliminating famine and disease is regarded as an increase in the Earth’s human population. If you’re a member of the Earth Liberation Front, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Center for Food Safety, and the Organic Consumers Association, among others, the scientific advances of biotechnology are bad news.
If you are a member of the human race, however, genetically-modified foods (GMOs) means (1) an increase in agricultural productivity wherever such crops are grown; (2) crops that can resist the effects of drought, a common cause of crop failures; (3) the bioengineered increase of nutrients and a decrease of saturated fats in various food crops; and (4) the reduction of the use of insecticides and herbicides. Farmers will tell you GMOs, in addition to reducing the amount of water needed to grow certain crops, contribute to the reduction of soil erosion caused by agriculture.
So why is the European Union refusing to permit the importation and use of GMOs? Alex Avery of the Hudson Institute probably said it best when he described it as "technological apartheid." While the Europeans are well fed, the fate of people in Africa and other Third World nations are of little importance to them for purely economic reasons. Avery points out that, "More than half of the EU’s collective budget is gobbled up by farm subsidy costs, so Europe has done all that it can to avoid productivity-enhancing technologies for cost savings."
In the interest of keeping GMO crops from America and other nations out of Europe, the EU has declared that such crops may pose a health risk. They say that genetically modified crops, if grown in Europe, might "contaminate" organic crops. Baloney! For all the reasons stated above, GMO crops not only do not pose a threat to organic crops, except in terms of greater yields, they hold the potential for the virtual elimination of famines that cause the deaths of millions worldwide every year.
The EU represents the fourth largest market for U.S. agricultural exports. The earnings were projected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture at $7 billion for 2005, nearly 12% of all the U.S. agricultural exports. The main export products are soybeans, tobacco, and animal feed, including corn gluten.
To date, the EU has not offered a scintilla of scientific evidence to justify the market bans imposed by some member states. The whole point of the World Trade Organization is to end frivolous bans in order to facilitate, well, world trade! The WTO even has an Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures that requires "sufficient scientific evidence" to support trade-restrictive regulations on crops and food products."
Speaking in May 2003, President Bush said, "Our partners in Europe…have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears. This has caused many African nations from investing in biotechnology for fear that their products will be shut out of European markets. European governments should join, not hinder, the great cause of ending hunger in Africa."
The opponents of GMOs will tell you this is about consumers versus agricultural corporations or they will continue to fear-monger about the safety of GMO foods. It’s a government-to-government confrontation over food exports and more than a dozen nations, including South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Canada, Australia, Columbia, El Salvador, Honduras, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico and Egypt, have expressed support for the U.S. initiative currently waiting a still-delayed decision by the EU.
Putting aside the financial aspects of the ban EU member states have imposed, the issue of GMO safety has long since been decided. In 2004, the National Research Council, a division of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report in which it found that genetic engineering is "not an inherently hazardous process", calling the fears of the anti-biotech crowd "scientifically unjustified." The report in fact repeated findings that date back to 1987.
The United Kingdom-based Institute for Food Science and Technology found that "Genetic modification has the potential to offer very significant improvements in the quantity, quality and acceptability of the world’s food supply."
Not only is there no cause to fear GMO food products, since the WTO case was launched in 2003, the planting of biotech crops has increased around the world at unprecedented rates. In 2005 alone, more than 81 million hectares were sown with biotech crops by more than eight million farmers in 17 countries; a 20% increase over the previous year. They are even being planted in European nations where farmers in Spain, France, Portugal, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Romania are taking advantage of the benefits they represent.
While a favorable decision by the WTO opening European markets to GMO food choices will be good for consumers, the real winners will be the world’s farmers who have suffered the most under these de facto trade restrictions.
So now we wait for the EU to do, at last, the right thing, the moral thing, by ending the GMO ban it has imposed.
© 2006 Alan Caruba.
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Alan’s work has a sense of timelessness about it, so anyone perusing these articles in the future will find them equally insightful as they were when originally written. For Alan's latest thoughts go to his blog, Warning Signs. For his past works go to The National Anxiety Center. I would also recommend reading his last book, Right Answers.