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7-Business: Avoid a food fight with Europe

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TITLE:  Avoid a Food Fight With Europe
SOURCE: National Journal, USA, by Bruce Stokes
DATE:   Nov 2, 2002

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Avoid a Food Fight With Europe

In the next few weeks, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick is 
expected to decide whether to file a case at the World Trade Organization 
against long-standing European restrictions on importing genetically 
modified corn and soybeans. For years, the European Union has dragged its 
feet on lifting these barriers, despite U.S. complaints. The Bush 
administration is under growing pressure from U.S. agribusiness to take 
action against such European protectionism-if only to discourage other 
countries from following the European lead-and American lawyers think they 
have a slam-dunk case.

But Zoellick should be wary of pursuing a Pyrrhic victory at the WTO. A 
judgment against the European Union may be politically unenforceable given 
the strong public opposition in Europe to genetically modified foods. The 
timing of such a case would also entangle this inflammatory dispute in 
other, more- pressing trans-Atlantic controversies, such as the impending 
war with Iraq. And the administration should not forget how its decision 
earlier this year to impose tariffs on steel imports was a public-relations 
disaster in Europe. Green parties in Europe would undoubtedly seize on a 
case involving genetically modified food to conjure up anti-American images 
of U.S. multinationals force-feeding European consumers with "Frankenstein 

 Zoellick would do well to hold his fire. There is more at stake here than 
trade. Give the European Union time to see whether its new approval 
guidelines for genetically modified foods can work. Most important, wait 
for the promised economic and consumer benefits of modified foods to be 
realized first in order to build broader public support for biotechnology.

Genetically modified food crops-corn and soybeans, mainly-have been grown 
commercially in the United States since the mid-1990s. In 1997, farmers 
planted about 17 percent of their soybean acreage with the new modified 
seeds. By 2001, the proportion had grown to 68 percent. And about 20 
percent of national corn acreage is planted in insect-resistant 

In 1998, amid mounting public fears, the European Union banned imports of 
all new genetically modified seeds and of foods containing even traces of 
genetically altered material. In October 2002, in response to U.S. 
protests, the Europeans finally put into effect a new process that promised 
eventual approval for genetically modified foods. But the procedures are a 
sham, say U.S. agribusiness. It could take eight to 10 months each time a 
genetically modified product is submitted before approval is gained, and 
numerous EU member states have already threatened to veto such approvals.

"Unless the EU can get a very strong commitment out of key member states 
not to block the process," said Peter L. Scher, a partner at Mayer, Brown, 
Rowe & Maw, who represents Monsanto, a producer of genetically modified 
seeds, "the U.S. has no choice but to file a case" on the grounds that EU 
restrictions are not scientifically based.

But such a suit would fly in the face of public opinion on both sides of 
the Atlantic. Recent polls show that between two-thirds and three-quarters 
of Europeans and about half of Americans oppose the use of biotechnology in 
agriculture and food production. Moreover, two-thirds of Americans believe 
that Europeans have a right to require labeling of genetically modified 
foods, even if it might reduce U.S. food exports.

Such skepticism reflects the well-founded public belief that the rapid 
spread of genetically modified crops is the result more of seed-company 
marketing hyperbole than demonstrable benefits to farmers and consumers. 
Adoption of Bioengineered Crops, a May 2002 study by the Economic Research 
Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, concluded that, although the 
payoff from using genetically altered seeds varies by region and crop, 
"farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative." USDA 
economists say the attraction of the new seeds may be that they require 
fewer chemicals-pesticide use is down 6.2 percent on land planted with 
modified seeds-and thus save time for America's many part-time farmers. But 
consumers do not yet widely appreciate or understand such benefits.

Similarly, for all the agribusiness hype about "wonder crops" that could 
feed people in poor nations, and even deliver pharmaceuticals to consumers 
through altered foods, the average person has yet to enjoy the fruits of 
the genetics revolution. So why not wait for greater public support before 
launching a high- profile, high-risk food fight with the Europeans?

In the meantime, the United States and the European Union could begin a 
joint effort to broaden understanding of genetically modified foods. The 
two sides could also work toward developing a common set of rules that 
would determine when agricultural biotechnology products could be approved 
for sale and use, recommends a working group assembled by the 
AtlanticCouncil of the United States in a forthcoming report. Washington 
could use the threat of a WTO case as the incentive to sign such an accord.

In the end, the United States has a strong case against Europe's barriers 
to genetically modified products. And the Europeans certainly don't deserve 
further American forbearance. Yet in trade diplomacy, as in life, 
discretion is often the better part of valor.


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