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Uncle Sam's Other War: Biotech vs. the European Union

The Bush Administration is threatening the E.U. with legal action unless they allow U.S. biotech foods into their food supply. The problem is, Europe's not budging.
 
 
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The U.S. government is not very happy with the European Union these days. Washington is calling Europe's stand "inmoral", but Europe refuses to budge.

No, it's not the Iraq war. The issue is genetically modified (GM) foods.

Since 1998 the European Union has required the labelling of all GM foods. This has amounted to a de facto moratorium on U.S. imports of GM foods because Uncle Sam stubbornly refuses to label them. Small wonder, since consumer polls on both sides of the Atlantic show that most shoppers want GM foods labeled, precisely so they can avoid them.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, recently called the European position on GM foods "Luddite" and "immoral". David Byrne, the European Union's health and consumer protection commissioner, called Zoellnick's remarks "unhelpful", "unfair" and "wrong".

The U.S. agricultural biotech industry is deadset against labelling. "labelling is a sham," said Mary Kay Thatcher, lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau. "It would be so expensive, it would shut down our exports."

Labelling "implies that there is something wrong with genetically modified good," said Elsa Murano, the U.S. Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety. "It would be another kind of trade barrier."

Years of struggle

Europe's opposition to eating GM foods did not just happen overnight. Rather, it was the product of years of activism and agitation on the part of activists from all walks of life.

Thoughout the 1990's, citizens all over Europe took matters in their own hands, "weeding" or "decontaminating" experimental GM plots with garden tools. Many of these civil disobedience acts were done in broad daylight, in front of reporters and flabbergasted policemen. They did not fit the profile of the lone nut or the crazed leftist. They were teachers, artists, farmers, carpenters, middle class housewives. Then came the "crop squats": groups "weeded" GM crops and occupied the plots for days and even weeks, turning them into demonstration organic farms and makeshift community centers.

These Gandhi-like revolutionary actions were remarkably similar to those carried out by the European peace movement in the 1980's against the deployment of American MX missiles. One can say that whereas nuclear weapons were a symbol of state power in the cold war, biotech is a symbol of corporate power in the post-cold war.

Activism worked. People made a difference. Europe today has no Yankee MX missiles or Yankee GM "frankenfoods". Now "Old Europe" has a de facto moratorium on GM foods, and it won't budge. Uncle Sam is furious.

WTO? Be my guest!

Washington has repeatedly threatened to bring a case against the European Union to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Unfriendly to social, environmental and public health considerations, the WTO has a dispute resolution mechanism whose workings have been repeatedly denounced by civil society groups as untransparent and undemocratic.

When a member country brings a case against another for erecting an "unfair trade barrier" in the WTO, the accused country is guilty until proven innocent. The accused country has to prove its innocence, the accuser has to prove nothing. The cases are heard behind closed doors by panels of unelected trade bureaucrats.

But not to worry, the European Union will win its case if it can prove that its rejection of GM foods is based on "sound science". "Whatever that means," the Europeans sigh sardonically. In the late 1990's, "sound science" meant that Europe had to import American beef tainted with growth hormones, even though its scientific authorities had determined that such hormones were an unacceptable health risk. The WTO had simply declared that the European ban on hormone-tainted beef was an unjustified trade barrier. So much for "sound science".

GM foes in Europe and all over the world breathed a collective sigh of relief last month when the U.S. laid down its challenge. As reported in the Organic Consumers Association web site, Washington decided not to take the matter to the WTO. However, few observers on either side of the issue believe the U.S. has really called it quits.

Could this be a quid pro quo? In hopes of winning Europe over to Bush's war on Iraq, perhaps? The U.S. government flatly denies this.

Is the U.S. hoping things will cool off and resistance to GM will soften? That would be a gross miscalculation. The European Parliament shows no intention of loosening GM food labelling requirements. Worse yet, last month British Minister of State for the Environment Michael Meacher came out against genetically engineered foods and crops, calling them unnecessary and dangerous.

"The real problem is whether ten, 20, 30 years down the track serious and worrying things happen that none of us ever predicted," he said to the Ecologist. "It's these sorts of totally unpredicted problems that make me very, very cautious."

These declarations are pretty bad news for American biotech interests, since England has historically been the European government most supportive of the U.S. position on GM foods.

Not exactly a booming market

The outlook for biotech foods doesn't look much better in the rest of the world. As reported in the February 2003 issue of Biodemocracy News:

• India has just refused part of a $100 million shipment of GM-tainted soy and corn from the U.S.A

• On January 18 Brazil impounded a shipment of American GM corn, demanding that it be returned or incinerated.

• In the Phillipines, protesters uprooted GM crops and turned to the streets after the government caved in to the U.S. pressure to accept these biotech products.

• Shipments of American GM crops were greeted with protests in several Australian cities.

Opposition is building up in the U.S. too. As of 2002, 44 American municipalities had passed resolutions calling either for the labelling of GM foods of against the planting of such crops, including Denver, Boston, San Francisco and Austin. 33 of these municipalities are in Vermont, a state small in size and population but large in democratic tradition. And on Monday March 3, 36 more Vermont towns voted against genetic engineering in their town meetings.

One blunder after the other

The biotech industry has been stumbling from one embarassing fiasco to another. It had assured that containment of GM organisms and products would not be a problem. But in 2000, traces of Starlink, a GM corn deemed unfit for human consumption by the FDA, appeared in hundreds of U.S. supermarket products. Millers and processors ended up spending one billion dollars in a three month period trying to get rid of it. And yet it keeps showing up in the darndest of places. Japan recently turned back a shipment of American corn after it tested positive for Starlink.

Then came the Prodigene Affair, dubbed the " Three Mile Island" of biotech by The Nation. Last November the FDA impounded 500,000 bushels of soy that were contaminated with biopharmaceutical GM corn engineered to secrete pharmaceutical drugs.

Biopharmaceuticals, or " pharmacrops," are the biotech industry's latest bet. The idea of genetically engineering corn, soy or rice plants to turn them into biofactories of chemicals or pharmaceuticals, ranging from industrial enzymes to contraceptives and abortion-inducing morning-after drugs might seem like a great idea to industry executives.

But the Starlink and Prodigene affairs are friendly warnings of what might happen if these pharmacrops are not contained and properly segregated from the food supply. Even the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the National Food Processors Association have expressed concern about this.

But the biotech genie dies hard. Is the industry giving up on it? Not even close. Stay tuned.

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is a research associate at the Institute for Social Ecology, and a Fellow at the Society of Environmental Journalists and at the Environmental Leadership Program.