Who's Afraid Of Big, Bad Biotech?

February 6, 2000
The Washington Times

The just-concluded U.N.-sponsored agreement in Montreal concerning biotech food will allow greater trade restrictions on the products, beginning in two years, than current trade agreements allow. This makes it all the more important to understand why Americans seem relatively happy with such food while our trading partners in Europe apparently view them in horror.

Indeed, Europeans call biotech foods "Frankenfood" or "mutant." Even their "neutral" term "genetically modified" has an ominous ring.

Virtually everything we eat has been genetically modified by man over the last 5,000 years. The biotech process simply allows the selection of specific genes for transferring or modifying, instead of crossing one whole organism with another and hoping the desired traits will be expressed.

But Europeans don't know or don't care. According to a poll conducted by the European Commission, Europeans are more likely than Americans "to view agricultural biotech as a threat . . . to the moral order, and more likely to associate biotech foods with menacing images of adulteration, infection and monsters."

Monsters? Blimey! Sacre Bleu! What's going on?

There's no short answer. The undercurrent of the controversy is the clash between American and European attitudes toward food in general. "Food is our culture," one Frenchman told me - and that culture is a conservative one. That biotech food is different in any way from its predecessors is, for many Europeans, a strike against it, even if the difference has no effect on health or taste.

This newness allows Europe's heavily subsidized farmers to exploit fears that biotech food may pose some as-yet-undefined health risk.

And that's the real story here: The campaign of fear-mongering against the biotech industry in Europe is a sop to special interest groups, particularly environmentalist and heavily subsidized EU farmers.

Virtually all biotech seed currently sold has one ultimate purpose: allowing farmers to grow more food on less land at less cost. But the potential for kind of efficiency and productivity threatens the status quo for European farmers, who are about twice as heavily subsidized as their American counterparts. "Farmers here are embracing organic techniques precisely because they produce far lower yields," says Roger Bate of London's Institute for Economic Affairs. "The last thing they want is to be more productive." That would drive prices down.

Partly because these subsidies encourage unproductive techniques, many European farmers have long failed to compete with Americans. The increased efficiency of U.S. biotech crops promises to widen the disparity. So for the farmers and their governments, these crops are a threat. The EU has obediently declared a moratorium on approval of new biotech crops.

Because the U.S. is the primary or sole exporter of some of these crops, the moratorium is arguably a trade restriction. We have seen this tactic before, with the EU's effort to block the import of cheaper U.S. beef. Europe's scare tactics over growth hormones were laughed out of the World Trade Organization, but the EU still refuses to lift the ban.

European environmental groups, especially Greenpeace, also have played the health card to get their way. These groups have far more influence in Europe than in the U.S.

As E.U. regulators have lost credibility from fumbles with mad cow disease and Belgium's dioxin-fed chickens and pigs, environmentalists have achieved "a very high level of credibility," says Walter von Wartburg, author of Gene Technology and Social Acceptance. "We have a regulatory process with lots of directorates coming up with different opinions," he told me. "And if some are for and some are against and Greenpeace says this is the ultimate truth, they become a kind of arbiter."

Opponents of biotech food shrewdly exploit anti-American sentiment. "Most Europeans think of the U.S. as a colonial power, albeit a very soft and gentle one," says Gian Reto-Plattner, a scientist and a Socialist member of the Swiss Parliament who broke with his party to oppose a ban on sales of biotech food. Americans are also partly to blame for assuming a European willingness to dive into the future as quickly as we do.

Old World sensibilities are different, after all.

Something that may help is when more products begin appearing that help not only farmers and the environment but profit consumers as well. These will include foods with better taste, less fat and fewer calories, other healthful traits such as cholesterol reduction, and delayed spoilage.

For example, a strain of newly developed biotech golden rice packed with beta-carotene promises to alleviate vitamin A deficiencies that plague 124 million children worldwide. Monsanto has developed a canola oil that is also packed with beta-carotene.

When Europeans see these products, the "Frankenfood" epithets may become as hoary as the original Frankenstein films.

Yet even if Europe banishes biotech, it wouldn't be the end of the world. Says Carole Brookins, a Washington trade consultant: "We need to remember there's almost 6 billion people outside of Europe and start concentrating more on them."

Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in D.C., where he specializes in science and health issues.


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