Pierce Hollingsworth

On August 26, 2001, hundreds of radical environmentalists in France laid ruin to a major test site for genetically modified corn owned by Monsanto Co. The destruction came just days after about 150 activists destroyed a similar site in southern France. 

BUSINESS/MARKETINGIncidents such as these are becoming increasingly common throughout Europe. Those in opposition to the development and testing of GM crops say they are the unsafe products of greedy multinational agri-businesses whose aim is to patent their own foodstuffs and extract big profits from a vulnerable world. However, the food safety issue may just be a Trojan Horse, inside of which is the real issue—hardball global politics. 

The safety issue strikes a resonant chord with a European public still in the throes of the Mad Cow and Hoof-and-Mouth scourges. European Union officials had assured European consumers that their food supply was secure and the epidemics under control. It didn’t play out that way, resulting in an emotional crisis of confidence. Thus, while EU officials condemn the destruction caused by these activists, they are sympathetic to many of their goals. 

Under the banner of food safety, the EU has legislated increasingly tough measures to restrict GM products in the food supply, and many other countries have followed suit. In June, the U.S. General Accounting Office warned that U.S. exports of crops with a GM component are encountering growing restrictions in foreign markets. The EU has sought to block approval of any new agricultural biotech products since 1998, and earlier this year it imposed new regulations and guidelines that will further restrict imports of biotech products, such as requirements for labeling, traceability, and tracking. Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Korea also have enacted mandatory labeling requirements for foods containing or derived from biotech products. In addition, Japanese regulators actively urge processors to eliminate GM crops from their supply sources. 

Because U.S. crops historically are commingled in the supply chain, traceability and segregation of GM grain loom as major and costly hurdles. The U.S. is the largest producer of GM grains, particularly soybeans and corn. While soybean exports, geared primarily for animal feed, have yet to experience disruptions, corn exports have been essentially shut out of the EU market. Many U.S. officials claim that such regulations are really designed to protect EU farmers from U.S. competition. In fact, most current scientific evidence supports claims that GM grains are safe. 

Ironically, GM crops were originally developed to achieve positive environmental goals such as higher yields in marginal growing areas of the world, reduced susceptibility to pesticides, and increased natural pest resistance, requiring far less pesticide use. 

The United Nations Development Program concluded last July that developing countries stand to gain the most from the introduction of GM crops, significantly reducing the malnutrition that affects some 800 million people. UNDP pinpointed the value of GM crops to poor farmers working marginal land in sub-Saharan Africa. UNDP administrator Mark Malloch Brown noted that new GM rice varieties had 50% higher yields, matured 30–50 days earlier, were substantially richer in protein, and were far more disease and drought resistant. “They will be especially useful because they can be grown without fertilizer or herbicides, which many poor farmers can’t afford,” he said. Oxfam, Greenpeace, Actionaid, the Intermediate Technology Group, and about 290 grassroots organizations opposed the UNDP report, but were not unified in an alternative to its conclusions. 

The stakes are high for both farmers and the U.S. economy. Since Monsanto first introduced gene-altered crops in the mid-1990s, acceptance by farmers has skyrocketed. Today, more than 55% of all soybeans, 30% of corn, and 35% of cotton acres in the U.S. are planted with GM crops. The success of these crops initially helped to expand export markets for both processed products and grain, as well as GM seeds. 

The goal of the Bush administration has been to support consistent and “reasonable” food safety regulations and testing, while fighting excessive, projectionist legislation that it estimates could cost U.S. companies up to $4 billion per year. In August, Undersecretary of State Alan Larson called the proposed tighter EU rules relating to labeling and traceability, “trade disruptive and discriminatory.” He noted that while American soybean oil would require a label, European cheeses and wine made with GM enzymes would be exempt. The issue looms large as global trade talks are planned to resume later this year. The World Trade Organization also is gearing up to consider how current and proposed regulations will affect international trade agreements. 

It’s clear that opponents of GM crops will continue to stress food safety—not opposition to U.S. farmers and seed developers—as their call to arms. Ironically, most of these same groups wrap themselves in the banner of compassion for the malnutrition and hunger that plague the Third World. To them, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the author of the UN report, had this to say during a recent press conference, “I think the first-world environmentalists should put on the shoes of a farmer in Mali faced with crop failures every other year and think what technological development could do for his harvest.”

Contributing Editor
President, The Hollingsworth Group, Inc.
Wheaton, Ill.