A Trade Challenge
U.S. has to win over EU consumers.


Science and legal arguments may not be enough for the U.S. to prevail in a suit filed with the World Trade Organization challenging the European Union’s de facto moratorium on new approvals of agricultural biotechnology products. The U.S. faces a stiffer challenge: winning over European consumers. That won’t be easy now that major environmental groups are gearing up to tie the biotech battle to the current depiction of the U.S. as a world bully.

The U.S. Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick, together with Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, announced on May 13 that the United States, Argentina, Canada, and Egypt will formally challenge the EU’s current agricultural biotechnology policy.

The EU’s five-year hold on any new product approvals is not based on scientific evidence that these products cause harm to humans or the environment. Many scientists, politicians, and policy observers think that the EU’s current policy is based less on health or environmental risks and much more on risk perceptions by the public and fear of competition by some producers.

The technology of modern biotechnology has been successfully used in the United States and several other countries to create new crops that have beneficial traits for farmers, such as less need for certain pesticide applications and crop protection against some devastating pests and diseases. However, European consumers have been slow to embrace the new technology in agriculture, while considering it more favorably in medical applications. Part of that response is no doubt due to massive and well-funded campaigns by some anti-biotechnology groups.

Every country has the right to refuse products and imports that can pose harm to humans, animals, or the environment, according to the trade rules for the members of the World Trade Organization. However, such measures should be based on science and on a process in which countries try to address the uncertainty of risk that exists with every new technology.

The existing policy by the EU to put the approval process for such products on hold for five years has angered many agricultural-exporting countries. The blunt refusal to even consider approving any product is not justified under the current trade agreements. Restarting the process — lifting the moratorium — would still give the EU the right to make a case-by-case decision on the approval of a specific product or application of the technology. While there has been a slow progress in restarting the approval process in Europe, the bigger challenge is to persuade the general public and European consumers in particular about the current and potential benefits of such an important technology.

Unless the announcement by the U.S. and others is accompanied by significant efforts to address the skepticism in many European countries, the U.S. challenge could instead stiffen the resistance. This issue is not perceived to be about certain special interest groups but about food issues that concern everyone. Food safety issues have been a sensitive issue in Europe, which has faced a range of problems totally unrelated to agricultural biotechnology, such as Mad Cow disease.

With the WTO members struggling to find common ground on agricultural trade, the U.S.-EU formal break on biotechnology issues could result in a deepening divide on all agriculture issues. The slow progress on negotiations to reduce farm subsidies, import restrictions, and other agricultural topics are endangering any meaningful agreement at the next WTO Ministerial Meeting in Cancun, Mexico in September.

In the current frosty atmosphere between some EU countries and the U.S., the legal action could easily be exploited by activist groups that want to stop biotechnology altogether. Public resentment to any move that might be regarded as the U.S. applying pressure on this often not well-understood issue, could set back biotechnology acceptance in Europe.

Optimists could hope that the EU will begin to reconsider its policies and take note of the repercussions that its restrictions on agricultural biotechnology have beyond its own borders. Consumers and producers in developing countries are struggling with the concerns promulgated by some activist groups and the fear that crops their farmers produce with such technology could be barred from European markets.

A recent example is the refusal by some Southern African countries to accept U.S. food aid — despite malnutrition and threats of famine — because it might contain crops produced with the help of modern biotechnology.

Modern biotechnology can be an important tool for farmers and consumers in rich and poor countries — in improving agricultural production and addressing problems of malnutrition. It would be regrettable if it is stopped in its tracks because of misperceptions and resentments.

Barbara Rippel, policy analyst with Consumer Alert.