Events

The Genetically Modified Food Fight: Why Europe Will Win and Poor Farmers Will Lose

October 27, 2002 // 11:00pm

By Robert Lalasz

The sale of genetically-modified (GM) food, feed, and derivative products remains one of the most contentious issues today between Europe and the United States. Robert Paarlberg says that Europe's more cautionary regulatory approach to GM crops and products is likely to spread throughout the world—-partly because the United States has disengaged from international organizations and aid.

Moreover, Paarlberg argues that a worldwide moratorium on GM commodities would only hurt developing countries, where he said GM crops "could make the difference between poverty and prosperity." Paarlberg outlined his case to a Wilson Center meeting co-sponsored by the Center's Environmental Change and Security Project and its Future Challenges Committee.

How Europe Won the GM Battle

Paarlberg began by pointing out just four countries—-Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and the United States—-have 99 percent of all acreage devoted to GM crops. "This tightly restricted uptake of GM," he said, "reflects more than anything else Europe's approach to [GM] questions"—-an odd phenomenon, Paarlberg added, in an age of U.S. triumphalism.

He attributed Europe's influence to its continuing overseas aid and engagement with international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Bank as the United States has reduced foreign agricultural assistance and its participation in international convention negotiations.

"Europe works hard to maintain influence in international governmental organizations, while the U.S. acts unilaterally and pays the price," Paarlberg said. NGOs and the influence of European and Japanese food importers have also been key. The result, he said, is that European-style regulations outlawing commercial growth of GM food or feed crops have been adopted by almost all of Africa and Asia.

"There has been an export of Euro-style regulations to countries scarcely able to undertake them," Paarlberg argued. He said that not one African country outside of South Africa has approved any GM crop for commercial planting. In Asia, he added, only GM cotton has been legalized for cropping.

Why the GM Ban Hurts Developing Countries

Robert PaarlbergIn addition, Paarlberg said, Europe's moratorium on approval of new GM imports and its other anti-GM regulations frighten developing country farmers and ministers, who fear the loss of Europe as a market. "These regulations are the single most powerful force in implementing GM-free crops around the world," Paarlberg said. "Fear of lost export sales to the EU is one more reason why famine-threatened Southern African countries are refusing to accept whole-kernel corn and Argentina hasn't approved any new GM products for import since 1998."

Yet Paarlberg argued that GM crops that are pest-resistant, drought-resistant, or nitrogen-fixing could stop the chronic increases in hunger and agricultural poverty that afflict sub-Saharan Africa. "Africa's farmers didn't have the purchased inputs necessary to make the Green Revolution work," said Paarlberg. "Now, insects eat up to 45 percent of the maize crop in Kenya every year. It was never the intent of European regulations to make life more difficult for poor farmers, but that's their likely result."

He added that Africa's agricultural productivity has declined for 30 years, and it has experienced a 100 percent increase in child hunger since 1975. "To take an agricultural productivity option away from these people is a luxury we can't afford," Paarlberg said.

Paarlberg also pointed out that developing-country agriculture is now often implicated in habitat and biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, soil erosion, and overgrazing—-issues of great concern to the same environmentalists who are opposing the spread of GM crops. "These [issues] are all clear and present dangers to the rural environment," said Paarlberg. "So why is so much effort being placed into screening for GM crops and GM crops only?"

Limited Options for the United States

The United States has threatened to challenge European anti-GM regulations by appealing to the World Trade Organization, but Paarlberg said that the WTO is a much weaker mechanism on food safety rules than it is on purely market questions. Both times the United States has prevailed in the WTO on food safety rules issues, Europe has accepted retaliatory measures rather than change its regulations.

"The threat and persuade approach is faltering," Paarlberg said. "The U.S. position has virtually no support in the EU. The French want mandatory labels on all [GM-derived] pet food."

And proposed labeling and traceability regulations for GM products could cripple U.S. GM exports, Paarlberg said. He said he feared U.S. farmers will have to return to growing non-GM varieties—-with a resulting net farm income drop and increased use of pesticides and chemicals.
Paarlberg said that the European Commission should "have the courage to accept the recommendations of its own scientific committee," which has repeatedly found GM foods to be safe."

Discussion

In response to audience questions, Paarlberg said that the planting of GM cotton is enjoying "phenomenal success" in China, Indonesia, and India. "It allows for a reduction in spraying [for pests] from a dozen times a year to two or three times." He added that it may allow "a confidence to develop for approval of GM food crops or feed crops, particularly if a country is not Euro-export dependent."

For now, Paarlberg said, GM exports are in trouble. "The tide has already turned for food and feed crops absent some new development," he said. "Monsanto hasn't gone ahead with GM maize, rice, or soybeans in China. China is selling GM-free beans to Koreans. Are the Chinese going to throw away that market to go with GM crops? I don't think so."

Paarlberg also criticized the United States for having "essentially dismantling" its agricultural aid to Africa. "During the Green Revolution, USAID had the most expert presence in African cities," he said. "But as we became the only superpower, we lost our presence in this regard…Now, the developed world is exporting regulations instead of technologies."

Paarlberg concluded by arguing that Europe's failure to object to GM pharmaceuticals was not hypocrisy. "If there's a tangible benefit [to GM products]," he said, "they'll take the risk. "There's no tangible benefit to GM food, so they won't take the risk on it." He added that only the addition of a pharmaceutical benefit to GM food or a substantial price disparity between GM and non-GM food will likely lead to GM product penetration in Europe.

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