Commentary: Agricultural Trade Squeals

Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko
Washington Times (February 29, 2008)

European Union officials adamantly refuse to let the World Trade Organization save them from themselves.

Despite a 2005 WTO ruling that some European countries were breaking international trade rules by prohibiting the importation of gene-spliced, or “genetically modified (GM),” crops and foods, Europe remains recalcitrant, unrepentant and on the verge of slaughtering its own livestock industry.

European Union agriculture ministers failed yet again Monday to permit imports of five biotech crops intended for animal feed, causing a group that represents European farmers to warn that without greater use of gene-spliced crops, the livestock industry could be decimated.

European shortages of grain for animal feed and soaring prices caused by both the rejection of gene-spliced grains and the diversion of corn to production of ethanol for fuel are causing panic among livestock producers. Pig and poultry farmers have been forced to reduce their output, while consumer consumption is down because of higher prices.

Although the WTO bluntly scolded the EU for imposing a moratorium on gene-spliced crop approvals from 1998 to 2004, that finding was a foregone conclusion. European politicians, including then-EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstroem, had acknowledged that the moratorium was “an illegal, illogical, and otherwise arbitrary line in the sand.”

The WTO also made clear that national bans on certain gene-spliced foods in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg were blatant violations both of those countries’ treaty obligations and EU rules, but the European Commission has been impotent in persuading its rogue members to conform to EU policies. Not only are most of those national bans still in place, but last October, French President Nicolas Sarkozy instituted a new moratorium on the commercial cultivation of gene-spliced corn.

The most important victory for the United States and its partners was the WTO’s judgment that the European Commission failed to abide by its own regulations by “undue delaying” of approvals for 25 gene-spliced food products. The culprit here was (and is) the EC’s highly politicized, sclerotic, two-stage approval process: Each application first must be cleared for marketing by various scientific panels, and then voted on by politicians, who routinely contravene the scientific decisions.

As the WTO pointed out, the relevant EC scientific committees had recommended approval of all 25 product applications. But, for transparently political reasons rather than concerns about consumer health or environmental protection, EU politicians repeatedly refused to sign off on the final approvals.

It is important to remember that these are superior products made with state-of-the art technology that is both more precise and predictable than other techniques for the genetic improvement of plants. The safety and importance of gene-splicing technology have been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies around the world, including the French Academies of Science and Medicine, U.K. Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, and many others.

The good news is that the WTO chastised the European Union for failing to follow its own regulatory rules. The bad news is the absence from the panel report of any condemnation of those rules themselves, though they are blatantly unscientific and impose gratuitous regulation and clear violations of WTO-enforced trade treaties.

Under various of those treaties, member countries are free to enact any level of environmental or health regulations they choose so long as (1) every such regulation is based on the results of a risk analysis showing some legitimate risk exists and (2) the degree of regulation is proportional to that risk.

Every risk analysis by countless scientific bodies worldwide has shown that the splicing of new genes into plants, per se, introduces no incremental risks. A 2001 European Commission report summarizing the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning 15 years concluded that, because gene-spliced plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable techniques, they are at least as safe as and often safer than their conventional counterparts.

In 2003, then-EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs David Byrne acknowledged that the official European Commission position was that currently marketed gene-spliced crop varieties posed no greater food safety or environmental threat than the corresponding conventional food varieties.

None of this has translated into more enlightened decisions on either policy or individual products, however (although over the last few years the EU has approved a small, token number of gene-spliced product applications in order to pretend its regulatory apparatus is now in compliance with the WTO ruling).

By requiring extraordinary testing procedures for an admittedly safer technology, the EU approach is not only disproportionate but manifests an inverse relationship between the degree of risk and amount of regulatory scrutiny. This is both absurd and illegal, but at a “background” briefing in February 2006, an unnamed “EU official” noted that, “it is nevertheless clear, beyond any doubt, that the EU will not have to modify its [biotechnology] legislation and authorization procedures.”

Because uncertainty is anathema to investment in costly research and development, few companies are likely to risk the tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs needed to pursue each new agbiotech product in Europe. Even worse, the less developed nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which once anticipated that agricultural and food biotechnology could provide them a brighter and more self-sufficient future, will continue to be shut out of the important European market by policymakers’ callous obstructionism.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and fellow at the Hoover Institution, headed the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology in 1989-1993. Gregory Conko is director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Barron’s selected their book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” as one of the 25 Best Books of 2004.

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