Commentary

Starvation a By-Product of Looming Trade War

Millions of starving people in Zimbabwe have the European Union to thank for their hunger. In early July, Zimbabwe rejected food aid from the United States because the corn involved had been genetically enhanced to protect it against insects. The threat of mass starvation is the direct consequence of the trade war over genetically improved crops that is brewing between the United States and Europe.

Zimbabwe has refused biotech corn because its government fears Europe would ban its agricultural exports once its farmers started growing genetically improved corn. After all, since the mid-1990s, the EU has banned imports of genetically enhanced crops from the United States on the specious grounds that they aren’t safe, which is nonsense. (Such crops have been genetically modified to, among other things, boost their growth, protect them from insects, and provide a longer shelf life.)

One scientific panel after another has concluded that biotech foods are safe to eat, and so has the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Even an EU review issued last fall of 81 separate European studies of genetically modified organisms found no evidence that genetically modified foods posed any new risks to human health or the environment.

It’s clear that the EU ban is not a safety precaution, but a barrier to trade. The EU is citing phony safety concerns to protect its farmers from competition and to protect its system of bloated farm subsidies. For more than a decade the EU has banned the importation of American beef treated with growth hormones. The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the EU’s ban was not based on scientific evidence, but was a trade barrier.

Fearing that the WTO would rule against their biotech crop ban, the Europeans are now trying to execute an end run around the WTO. Currently, under the trade organization, the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS) requires that regulations be “based on scientific principles.” The European strategy to circumvent the language of the agreement is to get the “precautionary principle” accepted as an international food and health safety standard. The precautionary principle is an anti-science regulatory concept that allows regulators to ban new products on the barest suspicion that they might pose some unknown threat. In addition, the Europeans are trying to get labels on all food products that contain ingredients made from biotech crops.

The Europeans are trying to smuggle the precautionary principle in via negotiations in two other international forums, the Codex Alimentarius Commission and the new Biosafety Protocol. In 1995, the SPS agreement conferred on the Codex the responsibility for setting international food safety standards that would be recognized by the WTO. The EU has succeeded in getting the Codex Commission to incorporate the precautionary principle and traceability requirements into several draft documents on risk and biotechnology.

If the Codex adopts those rules, it would mean that the SPS must recognize them. That, in turn, would mean that the WTO must accept them. And that means if the United States asks the WTO to adjudicate its dispute with the EU over the banning of biotech crop imports, America will lose.

Meanwhile, the EU-backed Biosafety Protocol, which has incorporated the precautionary principle, requires that all international shipments of genetically modified crops be labeled “may contain living modified organisms.” To achieve that requirement, biotech crops must be segregated from conventional crops. That means duplicating the entire shipping infrastructure of grain silos, rail cars, ships, and so forth. This is estimated to cost at least $4 billion and raise the price of grain by 12 percent. The Biosafety Protocol, which becomes effective after ratification by 50 nations, has been ratified by 33 countries.

What can the United States do to win this trade war and foster the spread of GM foods? Fortunately, U.S. negotiators can stop the Codex process. All Codex standards must be agreed to by consensus of all the parties. All the U.S. has to do is call a halt to the precautionary principle, biotech labeling, and traceability requirements, and they’ll be taken out of Codex.

Countering the absurd regs of the Biosafety Protocol is a thornier problem. U.S. trade officials need to make it clear that importing countries that also grow biotech crops, such as China and India, cannot set a double standard requiring traceability and labeling of U.S. imports while exempting their own crops. Furthermore, the U.S. State Department and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative must persuade all the chief food exporting countries, like Argentina, Australia, and Brazil, to create a united front against the EU, leaving Europe with no sources for non-biotech feed grain imports.

To protect their farmers from competition, the Eurocrats seem willing to wreck the WTO and incidentally starve millions in the developing world. The United States must prevent that.

Ronald Bailey is science correspondent for Reason magazine and author of the new Cato Institute study, “The Looming Trade War over Plant Biotechnology.”