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3-Food: Don't pester Europe on genetically modified food

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TITLE:  Don't Pester Europe on Genetically Modified Food
SOURCE: The New York Times, USA, by Clyde Prestowitz
DATE:   Jan 25, 2003

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Don't Pester Europe on Genetically Modified Food

WASHINGTON . The Bush administration recently announced that it is
considering taking action against the European Union because of its ban
on imports of genetically modified foods. It's a profoundly bad idea.

As a former Reagan administration trade hawk, I take a back seat to no
one in demanding the opening of foreign markets. But in this case and at
this moment, we need to look hard at our priorities.

The ban on genetically modified food has been a sorely troublesome issue
for the United States and the European Union for a long time. Without any
scientific grounds, but on the basis of the so-called precautionary
principle - that is, if we can't prove absolutely that it is harmless,
let's ban it - the union has prevented genetically modified food from the
United States from entering its markets. This is almost certainly a
violation of World Trade Organization rules, which don't recognize the
precautionary principle. If the United States follows through on its
threat to file a case, it has a very good chance of winning. But this is
a situation in which we could easily win in court but lose not only in
the market, but also in the arena of our broader interests.

American trade officials tend to see the issue purely as a matter of
European agricultural interests once again colluding and hiding behind
phony scientific worries to exclude competitive American products. There
is no doubt that there is an element of that in this case. But it is by
no means the major part of the problem. Whether rationally or not, many,
and perhaps most, Europeans are scared to death of genetically modified
food. And this is not entirely a matter of Europeans' falling victim to
protectionist propaganda or hysteria.

We must remember two things. One is that Europe has recently had some
very bad experiences with contaminated food. Health experts in the 1990's
maintained that beef from cattle with mad cow disease was perfectly safe
- until scores of Britons died.

That experience was all the more searing because food is to European
culture what free speech is to American culture. There may be no good
scientific reason for concern, but to consider eating something that has
resulted from some laboratory manipulation is felt by many Europeans as a
kind of denial of the true self. For Americans to insist that the union
accept genetically modified products is bound to be felt in Europe as
another exercise in American cultural and economic imperialism.

We may win the case before the World Trade Organization, but that is
likely only to guarantee a hardening of resistance by consumers.

The administration will argue that it wants only to give the consumers a
choice. But as one who spent years selling to European supermarkets and
consumers, I can say with confidence that such a move by the United
States would very likely result in a European campaign against all
American food.

That brings us to the second main point. We have already caused great
resentment among our European allies by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on
global warming and the International Criminal Court, both of which were
championed by the European Union. Given that we will want European
support for whatever actions we eventually decide to take in the Persian
Gulf or in North Korea, is this really the time to mount what is bound to
be a bitter, high-profile case in order to sell genetically modified potatoes?

It is, indeed, appalling that some countries would rather starve than
accept donations of genetically modified corn. But trying to force
genetically modified food down European throats is the surest way to
guarantee that they swallow neither the potatoes nor a lot of other more
important American proposals.

Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, is author
of the forthcoming "Rogue Nation: The Unintended Consequences of
America's Good Intentions."