Commentary: A Food Fight the U.S. Is Sure to Lose

With genetically modified food opposed by some 70% of Europeans and 94% wanting labels on it, the U.S. needs a rethink

Once again, Europe and the U.S. are at loggerheads. This time, they're fighting over food, not foreign policy. On July 2, the European Parliament passed legislation calling for detailed labeling of genetically modified (GM) food products.

You'd think Washington would be pleased. After all, the new laws will pave the way for American GM products to be sold within the European Union, ending a five-year ban. By the start of next year, European authorities will require all food, from pizza to potato chips, containing as little as 0.9% GM ingredients to be clearly labeled as such. But U.S. agrichemical giants such as Monsanto Co. and DuPont complain that the threshold is ridiculously low and will force exporters to track the presence of GM ingredients all the way from "farm to fork" -- an onerous and costly burden. On July 3, the U.S. State Dept. issued a statement saying the new labeling rules "could lead to the imposition of a new set of nontariff barriers."

This isn't the first time tempers have flared over the GM issue. In May, the Bush Administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the EU's 1998 moratorium on the farming and import of new GM crop strains. U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick has even characterized the European position on GM foods as "Luddite."

But America's tough talk ignores the reality of the European marketplace, a reality based on consumer preferences rather than government protectionism. Surveys indicate that more than 70% of European consumers are opposed to GM foods and 94% are in favor of more detailed labeling. Even in Britain, one of the most pro-GM European countries, a July poll by MORI Social Research Institute showed that only one out of every seven Britons favors GM food.

Are such fears unwarranted? Not when you consider that Europe has experienced several health crises in recent years that sensitized the population to hidden dangers lurking in the food supply. The most publicized of these is mad cow disease, which has killed more than 135 Europeans since 1995. Other scandals, such as dioxin-infested chickens in Belgium, have only contributed to European mistrust. With no scientific studies on the long-term impact of growing or eating GM foods, consumers believe their skepticism is justified. Yet GM advocates in the U.S. persist in "brushing aside environmental and social concerns as unfair trade issues," says Dan Hindsgaul, head of Greenpeace International's genetic engineering campaign.

Certainly, U.S. companies have a lot riding on European acceptance of GM products. Monsanto and DuPont alone have invested billions in bioengineered seed technology and are determined not to be shut out of Europe, one of the world's biggest agricultural markets. American farmers are losing out, too. The U.S. produces two-thirds of the world's GM crops. U.S. soy exports to the EU have declined by half over the past five years, to $1.6 billion, reflecting that 80% of the U.S. soybean harvest is now GM. U.S. agribusiness believes the EU's new rules will only make a bad situation worse by sending Europeans fleeing from anything with a GM label. Might as well slap a skull and crossbones sign on boxes of American cereal.

But why shouldn't European consumers have a right to know exactly what they are eating? By next year, 35 countries covering half of the world's population, including China, Japan, India, and Australia, will require mandatory government safety assessments before GM products are allowed into the market. "The main reason big companies are against labeling is because they realize that there is a huge potential that consumers may then choose not to buy GM products," says Nita Pillai, senior coordinator of the global food program at Consumers International.

Of course, Americans have been chowing down on GM foods for more than a decade: Bread, cooking oil, even infant formula already contain GM ingredients, something that U.S. labels don't reveal. Yet Americans don't seem overly concerned about the widespread presence of GM products, despite such isolated scares as the incident three years ago when StarLink, a genetically modified corn not meant for human consumption, showed up in supermarkets and fast-food chains. Studies may yet prove conclusively that GM food offers wonderful benefits with zero risk. But that day hasn't arrived. Until it does, no amount of bullying from across the Atlantic will persuade Europeans otherwise.

By Kerry Capell

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