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Don't pester Europe on genetically modified food

(Monday, Jan. 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Clyde Prestowitz, NY Times, 01/25/2003: The Bush administration recently announced that it is considering taking action against the European Union because of its ban on imports of genetically modified foods. It's a profoundly bad idea.

As a former Reagan administration trade hawk, I take a back seat to no one in demanding the opening of foreign markets. But in this case and at this moment, we need to look hard at our priorities. The ban on genetically modified food has been a sorely troublesome issue for the United States and the European Union for a long time. Without any scientific grounds, but on the basis of the so-called precautionary principle -- that is, if we can't prove absolutely that it is harmless, let's ban it -- the union has prevented genetically modified food from the United States from entering its markets. This is almost certainly a violation of World Trade Organization rules, which don't recognize the precautionary principle. If the United States follows through on its threat to file a case, it has a very good chance of winning. But this is a situation in which we could easily win in court but lose not only in the market, but also in the arena of our broader interests.

American trade officials tend to see the issue purely as a matter of European agricultural interests once again colluding and hiding behind phony scientific worries to exclude competitive American products. There is no doubt that there is an element of that in this case. But it is by no means the major part of the problem. Whether rationally or not, many, and perhaps most, Europeans are scared to death of genetically modified food. And this is not entirely a matter of Europeans' falling victim to protectionist propaganda or hysteria.

We must remember two things. One is that Europe has recently had some very bad experiences with contaminated food. Health experts in the 1990's maintained that beef from cattle with mad cow disease was perfectly safe -- until scores of Britons died.

That experience was all the more searing because food is to European culture what free speech is to American culture. There may be no good scientific reason for concern, but to consider eating something that has resulted from some laboratory manipulation is felt by many Europeans as a kind of denial of the true self. For Americans to insist that the union accept genetically modified products is bound to be felt in Europe as another exercise in American cultural and economic imperialism.

We may win the case before the World Trade Organization, but that is likely only to guarantee a hardening of resistance by consumers.

The administration will argue that it wants only to give the consumers a choice. But as one who spent years selling to European supermarkets and consumers, I can say with confidence that such a move by the United States would very likely result in a European campaign against all American food.

That brings us to the second main point. We have already caused great resentment among our European allies by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the International Criminal Court, both of which were championed by the European Union. Given that we will want European support for whatever actions we eventually decide to take in the Persian Gulf or in North Korea, is this really the time to mount what is bound to be a bitter, high-profile case in order to sell genetically modified potatoes?

It is, indeed, appalling that some countries would rather starve than accept donations of genetically modified corn. But trying to force genetically modified food down European throats is the surest way to guarantee that they swallow neither the potatoes nor a lot of other more important American proposals.


Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, is author of the forthcoming "Rogue Nation: The Unintended Consequences of America's Good Intentions."