Events

The Biotech Quagmire: Next Steps in the Genetically Modified Food Debate Between America & Europe

February 12, 2002 // 11:00pm

Summary of a meeting with Julia A. Moore, Public Policy Fellow, Wilson Center; Benno van der Laan, Director, Cabinet Stewart/European Affairs Consultancy; and Gilbert Winham, Fellow, Wilson Center.

The transatlantic debate over the health and environmental safety of genetically modified (GM) foods has led to a European Union moratorium on sales of new GM products in Europe as well as proposed European legislation requiring the traceability and labeling of any GM food. In turn, the U.S. Trade Representative has threatened to make a formal complaint over EU restrictions to the World Trade Organization. Julia Moore boiled the 25-year-old conflict over GM food down to a question of trust, not science, and argued that Americans must understand the roots of European distrust of GM foods before designing export policy.

Moore outlined how public opinion on GM food differs among Europe, the United States, and the developing world. Europeans, shaken by their governments' inability to protect food supplies from mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases, have little faith in bureaucratic, scientific, or business pronouncements touting the safety of GM foods. Americans, she said, tend to greet new technologies eagerly and trust the body of research that says GM foods are safe. Developing countries fear that criticisms of agricultural biotechnology will be a pretext for trade barriers. Moore sees four developments as promising for U.S. GM exporters: 1) a European Commission report calling biotechnology essential for economic growth; 2) a 25-fold increase in worldwide acres devoted to transgenic crops; 3) the establishment this year of the European Food Safety Authority; and 4) a French government advisory body's recommendation that GM sugar beets pose little risk of contaminating other crops.

Benno van der Laan explained the complicated legislative process ahead for proposed EU restrictions on GM products. He said that European pressures against these proposals were building, but that the legislation will emerge in some form sometime in 2003.

Gilbert Winham detailed the differences between the EU and the U.S. approaches to regulating GM products. While the U.S. government views GM products as essentially equivalent to other products already on store shelves, the EU uses the "precautionary principle" in its GM policies. Winham recommended that the United States not use the WTO to retaliate against European legislation regulating GM sales and development. Instead, Winham said, the United States should: (a) continue to lobby for the principle of food safety based on science, (b) help developing countries establish their own agricultural biotechnology industries, and (c) develop harmonized international standards.

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