The Looming Trade War over Plant Biotechnology

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American farmers are caught in the middle of a battle betweenthe United States and the European Union over genetically modifiedorganisms (GMOs). The EU is one of the most important potentialmarkets for those crops, two-thirds of which are grown in theUnited States, but impending EU regulations on biotech crops wouldseriously disrupt the flow of those crops to European markets.

Plant biotechnology has dramatically boosted American farmers'productivity and lowered their costs and, at the same time, helpedthem to protect the natural environment by reducing their use ofagricultural chemicals and preventing soil erosion. Consumers havealso benefited from lower prices and a healthier environment. Indeveloping countries, the deployment of plant biotechnology canspell the difference between life and death and between health anddisease for hundreds of millions of the world's poorest people.

One scientific panel after another has concluded that biotechfoods are safe to eat, and so has the U.S. Food and DrugAdministration. Even an EU review issued in the fall of 2001 of 81separate European studies of GMOs found no evidence that biotechfoods posed any new risk to health of the environment.

The EU has banned all food containing GMOs on the basis of the"precautionary principle," under which regulators do not need toshow scientifically that a biotech crop in unsafe before banningit; they need only show that it has not been proved harmless.Jettisoning scientific risk assessment and replacing it with aprecautionary approach will open the entire trading system tointerruptions based on arbitrary justifications. Capriciouslabeling requirements will also proliferate. Such labels areunjustifiably stigmatizing and costly and offer no consumer healthor safety benefits.

Consequently, all U.S. negotiators involved with trade inbiotech crops must make it unalterable U.S. policy to oppose theapplication of the precautionary principle and insist instead onscientifically based risk standards in all international tradeforums.

Ronald A. Bailey

Ronald Bailey is Reason magazine's science correspondent and an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.