EU Food Standards Are a Global Health Hazard

By Dennis Avery
July 5, 2000 Wall Street Journal

Is the old "Fortress Europe" turning into a serious threat to global trade and world health? The new threat started, as so many bad trade ideas have, in agricultural policy. For more than a century, Europe has tried to protect its small farmers by blocking farm imports, first with old-fashioned high tariffs and then with the "variable levies" of the Common Agricultural Policy, which yielded absurd surpluses of grain, meat, milk and sugar.

More recently, the European Union has attempted to frighten its own consumers about the safety of modern farm inputs that raise yields: pesticides, beef growth hormones, antibiotics that protect the health of livestock and poultry, and most recently biotech foods. Not surprisingly, EU countries have also prominently subsidized organic food, supposedly for its "safety" from pesticide residues, willingly ignoring the greater hazards inherent in organic food: higher levels of natural toxins, and the pathogenic bacteria in composted manure.

The real purpose of such tactics isn't hard to see: The EU is using specious health concerns to protect farmers from foreign competition, especially since the GATT and now the World Trade Organization have made it more difficult for Europe to do so through an old-fashioned tariff regime.

Consider the evidence. In 1985, the EC banned beef growth hormones that produced more meat with less feed. This official "confirmation of danger" encouraged scaremongers -- especially after the EU extended the ban in 1989 to meat from other countries where the growth hormones were legal. They ignored the science panels that have certified the hormones' safety in the U.S., the EU (1981, 1987, and 1995) and the U.K. (1999). Meanwhile, cow carcass tests indicate that EU farmers have simply bought their growth hormones on the black market.

But none of that has prevented the EU from issuing yet another "scientific report" claiming that children may be ultra-sensitive to levels of hormone residues too low for radio immunoassays to detect. The new EU hormone paper is directly contradicted by a 1999 U.K. Veterinary Products Committee report, which concluded that the hormone estrogen occurs widely in our diets, that the radio immunoassay method was able to detect hormones at very low levels, that the doses used in cattle were radically lower than in such human health products as birth-control pills, and that 90% of the low cattle dose simply passed through the animals.

The EU is also demonizing antibiotics in livestock and poultry feed. The European Parliament says it will ban the antibiotics as feed additives, supposedly because they threaten successful human treatment. (Again, the "threat" is undocumented.) But this will hamper confinement-feeding systems, which save millions of hectares of wildlands from being cleared for farmyards. Sweden and Denmark have already banned them, and their hogs and poultry are suffering more from diseases. The real need is more new antibiotics.

The EU is also campaigning against chemical fertilizer by suing most of its member countries for having "unhealthy" levels of nitrate in their drinking water. But here again, there's no health problem. The medical evidence says nitrates in the drinking water causes neither stomach cancer nor the rare-but-famous "blue baby syndrome." That leaves only the localized problem of algae blooms in surface waters -- hardly a major concern.

Finally, and perhaps most worrisomely, is the EU's assault against biotech foods, based on its latest anti-import weapon, the so-called Precautionary Principle. This now fashionable "principle" suggests that no country should have to permit imports of anything until the last remote possibility that it will endanger health, environment or the social fabric has been eliminated. It's an open door for non-science-based trade barriers. So, since 1997, the EU has required a warning label on any food made from genetically modified material -- though it has not identified any dangers associated with the products. Not surprisingly, European retailers, fearful of bad publicity, quickly ditched any products requiring the biolabel (including a popular canned tomato paste sold by Sainsbury's, the big British retailer).

All this has serious repercussions for trade. The U.S. and other agricultural exporters are intensely unhappy with Europe's ongoing attempt to demonize modern food production before the whole world. U.S. Senator Richard Lugar, the normally mild-mannered chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, declared at a recent hearing that the EU position on farm trade was about to spill over into other policy areas. (He also sits on the powerful foreign relations committee.)

Trade officials fear the EU will try to make more use of such public fear-mongering and non-tariff barriers in the future because it has already agreed to bring down (slowly) the high price supports which have provided most of its farm protection to date. U.S. cattlemen are pushing for a "carousel retaliation," which would change the list of penalty-tariff products every six months, to spread the pain of the EU's intransigence as broadly as possible.

Just as important as trade issues, however, is the impact of Europe's food standards on world health. Europe, of course, has plenty of food, but 800 million people elsewhere still go to bed hungry. More than a billion women and children suffer severe nutritional deficiencies, including vitamin A-induced blindness, due to their limited diets.

In year 2050 the world may have a peak population of nine billion people (and one billion more pet cats and dogs) who will need meat and milk on their tables. The world will then demand nearly three times as much food as today. It must come either from higher yields or from newly cleared forests. Hybrid seeds and fertilizer are already widely used. It will take some major new technology to save the forests. Scientists say the growth hormones, antibiotics and especially biotechnology will be vital conservation tools. Here are some examples of the advances now being made:
Mexican researchers have bioengineered the world's first acid-soil crops, which could boost yields by 50 percent on half the arable land in the tropics and save huge tracts of the forests.
A Washington State University researcher has recently announced biotech rice (spliced to a corn gene) with a higher rate of photosynthesis and 35% higher yields. This represents by far the biggest rice yield gain in two decades.
The Rockefeller Foundation and the European Union funded research on "golden rice," to prevent the severe vitamin A deficiency that kills or blinds millions of children per year in poor rice cultures. It will also eliminate the iron deficiency that causes birth complications for a billion women and their babies. Now the EU has refused to fund follow-up research to put "golden rice" genes into farmers' varieties.

Biotechnology is also Europe's best hope for reducing the ultra-heavy pesticide use stimulated by its high price supports, for producing allergen-free foods, and tasty off-season fruits and vegetables. Europe's enthusiasm for the Precautionary Principle is already driving its genetic-research jobs overseas. It could also stifle a big surge in profitable European farm exports to a richer, arable-land-short Asia in coming decades. The strategy also seems to throw the EU into a nasty choice between blocking the membership of new East European farming countries like Poland and Hungary, or redoubling the costly Euro-mountains of surplus grain and meat. (The new eastern members won't be content with second-class farming status after they get in.)

Europe so far seems oblivious to the fact that if the World Trade Organization indulges Europe's emotional excuse for import barriers, it will have to do the same for China, the U.S. and every other country. That gives running room to scaremongers to whip up frenzies in every country and against other products, with wide-ranging and damaging effects on world trade. The global economic boom that has been ushered along by the WTO in recent decades could end abruptly. Indeed, the shock could be as bad as that from America's Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which helped trigger the Great Depression of the 1930s.

That's quite a list of prospective achievements for an EU farm policy that has already lost 25 million small farmers, sponsored the destruction of the ancient hedgerows, stone fences and peasant cottages that made up Europe's traditional landscape.

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Mr. Avery is director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute, and was formerly the senior agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department of State.

 

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