Against the grain
US efforts to bully Europe into embracing genetically modified food are ill-judged and may well backfire, writes Andrew Osborn
Friday January 10, 2003
Insulting and threatening someone is no way to go about winning over their heart let alone their mind, especially when they suspect that their own health and the environment may be at risk and that you, the supplicant, are motivated purely by commercial considerations.
Yet, bizarrely, America seems to think that just such behaviour is exactly what is needed to persuade a sceptical Europe that genetically modified (GM) food is 100% safe and that Europe should rescind a four-year ban on new GM products.
This week Robert Zoellick, the US administration's top trade official, lashed out at a "luddite" and "immoral" Europe. European "antiscientific" policies were, he claimed, spreading to the developing world and convincing famine-hit countries to refuse GM food aid.
Pushing his own country ever closer towards a trade dispute with the EU that would dwarf all past spats, he called for the nth time for Europe's ban on new GM product approvals to be lifted and said he favoured legal action against the EU in the World Trade Organisation to force Europe to do the right thing.
The response from the EU was withering. Pascal Lamy, the EU's shaven-headed trade supremo and a personal friend of Zoellick's, offered his US counterpart a reality check. Legal action to force open Europe's markets would complicate and possibly even scupper the EU's own moves to lift the ban (something which could happen sometime later this year), and any legal challenge would be fiercely challenged and probably quashed.
Nor, he added, has the EU ever advised an African state to refuse GM aid - it has only shared its own sermon-free risk analyses and knowledge.
Mr Zoellick should listen to his old friend. Whatever the rights and wrongs of GM technology, the subject remains acutely controversial in Europe and GM products continue to be viewed with deep suspicion.
While allegations that GM food may harm human health remain unsubstantiated, warnings about the dangers of cross-pollination and playing with nature are taken seriously.
Fed a steady diet of Frankenstein food stories and still reeling from a slew of health scares ranging from mad cow disease to dioxin poisoning, Europeans are certainly not crying out for GM food, and if and when they are offered new products they will want to know their origin.
The public's scepticism, which shows no signs of abating, is reflected in their governments' policies. At least seven EU member states including France and Italy want the current moratorium on new GM products, which has been in place since 1998, to be maintained.
They have suggested, however, that they may be willing to lift the ban when the EU's own ultra-strict labelling and traceability rules enter into force - something which should happen later this year.
New rules to ensure that all GM food and crops undergo a series of rigorous risk assessment tests before they are authorised for sale, marketing, or even planting anywhere in the EU have already entered into force.
Whether the doubting member states actually do agree to lift the ban when the rest of the EU's GM legislation takes effect remains to be seen of course, but in the meantime Washington should pipe down.
Mr Zoellick's comments don't help. Taking such a heavy-handed approach will only alienate countries such as France where anti-Americanism needs little encouragement and will cause resentment and ill-feeling. It certainly won't engender a spirit of cooperation.
Instead America should concentrate on trying to win the ongoing ethical and scientific debate about GM technology which remains wide open.
Biotechnology firms' sensational claims about the life-changing nature of their products may well all be true - perhaps GM technology will one day vanquish hunger and transform the developing world. But maybe it won't.
The fact is that anything new needs to be tried and tested, and that takes time. People should also have the right to know what they're eating, which means labelling and until the debate about GM food is settled once and for all African countries should be offered non-GM food aid.
If anything is "immoral", it is the status quo whereby desperately hungry poor countries are offered GM grain by the US which much of the developed world would not touch with a bargepole.