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Politically modified

Wall Street Journal Europe, 7th November 2007
 

A majority of European environment ministers last week declined to overturn Austria's ban on the import of genetically modified crops. Only days earlier, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas opposed the approval of two GM maize varieties for cultivation. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, plans to suspend farmers' rights to grow any type of GM crop in France.

Seemingly bucking this anti-biotechnology trend, Brussels recommended around the same time the approval of four new GM crops for import to the EU. And European farmers continue to buy the new seeds with increasing enthusiasm. Spanish and French farmers alone grew 96,000 hectares of insect-resistant GM maize in 2007, up from 58,000 hectares the previous year.

So why is Europe so out of step with the rest of the world while making apparently conflicting decisions? The answer, as usual, is "politics." The political nature of the debate becomes clearer when we look at how the EU arrived at the recent authorization of the four GM crops. All had previously been subject to intense scrutiny by independent scientists on behalf of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which recommended the crops' approval. In a rational, science-based regulatory system, that would have been the end of the story. However, this was only the first step in a long process. National ministers meeting in the Environment Council mostly ignored the scientific evidence. Because GM food remains unpopular, at least with the Green lobby, ministers failed to approve the import licenses. According to EU rules, the final decision reverted back to the Commission which, not surprisingly, approved the crops based on EFSA's original recommendation. So the final result was consistent with the science, but the process was drawn-out, political and irrational. The regulatory system works, but barely so.

A similarly cumbersome procedure is being followed in the case of Austria. The Commission has repeatedly tried to overturn Vienna's ban on the two varieties of maize in question but was blocked by national environment ministers. Ultimately, the decision goes back to the Commission, which will undoubtedly uphold its original proposal, obliging Austria to allow the import of the crops, which had already been approved across the whole EU for a number of years.

If Austria complies-and Brussels can take legal action against Vienna if it doesn't-this would probably avoid an international trade spat. The World Trade Organization ruled last year that the kind of import restrictions Austria introduced violated its rules. The deadline to loosen them expires on Nov. 21. So, this typically convoluted EU decision-making-by-default may be something which all parties are happy with. Many governments can claim to have opposed lifting the ban but were overruled by Brussels. This way they can maintain their popular anti-GM credentials, while a potentially damaging trade war could be averted.

This is an unsatisfactory situation that ultimately benefits farmers in major agricultural exporting countries (particularly America) at the expense of their European competitors. Mr. Sarkozy's surprise announcement has the same effect. French farmers are prevented from continuing cultivating GM crops in order to satisfy the Green lobby. That ban might be ultimately overturned in Brussels but only after considerable delay, giving competitors a further advantage.

The problem can be traced back to November 1996, with the first imports of commodity soy containing "Roundup Ready" beans. Two U.K. supermarket groups had been successfully selling GM tomato paste since earlier in the year, but the introduction into the food chain of something as ubiquitous as soy-derivatives of which have been estimated to be included in 60% of processed foods-was the catalyst for a high-profile NGO and media campaign which led all major retailers to promise to eliminate GM ingredients from their branded goods.

There clearly was some consumer disquiet about GM food which the campaign exploited. But equally the experience with the tomato purée showed that GM products could be marketed successfully. And yet the Green lobby claimed that European consumers had rejected GM technology.

Not that this makes the EU some utopian GM-free island, as some might believe or at least hope-far from it. Millions of tons of GM soy are imported annually for animal feed. Without this genetically enhanced source of protein, meat prices would skyrocket. Since European labeling requirements for GM don't apply to products whose exposure to GM is through animal feed, most consumers remain unaware of this little fact.

The furor over soy imports in the 1990s led to a hiatus in the EU regulatory system, which has only recently begun once again to operate (albeit creakingly) to approve crops for import to be used primarily in animal feed. The real problem, though, is the authorization for cultivation, which remains seemingly a step too far for many European politicians, no matter what EFSA recommends.

At some stage, this logjam must surely be broken. European farmers will not stand idly by while their competitors remain free to use superior technology denied to them. The demands of a growing world population and the move toward renewable industrial raw materials, for example to make biofuels, dictate that we must optimize productivity. And, despite activists' rhetoric, genetic modification is not high on the list of consumer concerns. They are far more worried, and quite rightly, about food safety. It's only because GM food is, unscientifically, denounced as potentially unsafe, as Frankenfood, that consumers are wary about it.

But now that retailers have for the most part taken GM food from their shelves, reintroducing these products will be difficult. Scientific progress will help. Sooner or later, there will be products that not only benefit farmers, as do the present generation of seeds, but also provide recognizable consumer benefits, such as improved nutrition, longer shelf-life or better taste. Before too long, consumers will have to choose between superior products that scientists say are safe and food of lower quality recommended by the scare mongers from the Green lobby. No doubt, consumers will make the right choice, even in Austria.

Mr. Livermore, a chemist by training, is a science commentator and analyst.