Commentary: Biotech Food: Europe's Phony Open Door

By Paul Magnusson

I have my own test of European sincerity on the fiery issue of genetically modified food. When members of the European Parliament are at Capitol Hill luncheons, I make a point of asking if they're afraid of the meals they're eating. Invariably, they answer no. But they add sheepishly that they would risk unemployment if they publicly defended the genetically modified American imports that send protesters into the streets of the Continent.

Now, however, the Europeans appear to be putting their irrational fear of "Frankenfood" aside. Faced with an American President angry over the bad-mouthing of U.S. products, regulators in Brussels on Oct. 17 will issue new guidelines for licensing genetically modified food. That will seemingly end an ad hoc, three-year moratorium on new American biotech food products.

But rather than opening its market, the European Union is simply playing games. To comply with the new regs, U.S. farmers and food processors would have to completely change the way they grow, store, produce, and transport their goods. This sham compromise still pits prejudice against science and sets misinformed consumers and protectionist farmers in Europe against producers in America. That's why the Bush Administration needs to act quickly to take the case to the World Trade Organization. There, science and the law may finally prevail.

For the U.S. agriculture industry, the world leader in food technology, the stakes are huge. Farmers are 2.5 times more dependent on exports than the rest of the economy. One out of every three acres in America is planted for export. And much of that crop has been genetically modified to produce strains that are more productive and pest-resistant. Nearly three-quarters of soybeans and a third of all corn grown in the U.S. have been altered by introducing new genes.

Beyond the threat to the U.S. farm sector, there's a more important reason for swift action. The panic over genetically modified food is spreading around the globe. In famine-stricken southern Africa, 14 million people face starvation while their confused leaders follow the Europeans and their junk science. Zimbabwe and Zambia, for example, have rejected U.S. food aid, complaining that the grain is "contaminated" with ingredients that Europeans won't eat. "They watched carefully what the Europeans actually did," says Alan P. Larson, Assistant Secretary of State for agricultural affairs. Although China is itself developing a biotech food industry, it, too, has held up purchases of modified U.S. soybeans. And New Zealand and Japan show signs of following Europe's Chicken Littles.

The new European rules aren't just strict, they're unworkable. The labeling requirements, for example, are more a warning than an attempt to inform consumers. European supermarket chains, such as Carrefour of France and Britain's Tesco, have already vowed to exclude any products containing genetically modified food from their shelves. Oddly, European wines and cheeses, developed with genetically modified enzymes, would be exempt from the labeling regs.

The traceability standards are particularly onerous, requiring the U.S. industry to track genetically modified ingredients "from farm to fork," even if they contained just 1% of transgenic food. That would require separate harvesting equipment, silos, shipping containers--even factory production lines--and extensive testing at each step of the process. As for the question of human health, science has already decided. Numerous studies, including those by the National Academies of Science, say genetically modified food is safe. So does the World Health Organization. Even EU Health Commissioner David Byrne conceded to African leaders that the U.S. food aid quarantined in Zambian warehouses was safe to eat.

None of this is meant to imply that rigorous scientific testing of genetically modified foods shouldn't go on or that other concerns might not eventually rule out some biotech foods. The technology has to be regulated to ensure it doesn't replicate allergens or harm wild plant and animal species. But science--not suspicion--should decide each case.

Come Oct. 17, U.S. food producers should be prepared with their license applications. And the Administration should be ready at the courthouse door in Geneva.

Magnusson covers international trade and economics from Washington.

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