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Food Fight

Europe and America gear up for a confrontation at the WTO

Amanda Castleman

European protesters tear up genetically modified plants at a farm in Warwickshire, England.
Europeans have never liked genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. The products—nicknamed “Frankenfoods”—have been banned in Europe for the past five years.

These days, Europeans fear long-term health consequences and environmental contamination. They want to track GMOs from the seed sack to the dinner table, so any trouble can be quickly pinpointed and controlled. And they demand labels on all modified products, giving each citizen the ability to choose whether to purchase them.

But the outright GMO ban ends this year, and the European Union is renegotiating its policy. Politicians have been slowly hammering out the details of the plan, amid fierce public protests. But many member states—including Italy, France, Greece, Austria and Denmark—remain dubious. Their demands for maximum protection have delayed action.

Now, America plans to administer a force-feeding. The United States—peeved by the loss of $300 million in agricultural sales each year—is threatening to spark a trade war over GMOs.

In February, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman and several other members of Congress urged the Bush administration to file a complaint with the World Trade Organization. U.S. Trade Rep. Robert Zoellick also advocates a WTO case, but prefers strength in numbers. In January, he called for an international coalition against “Luddite” Europe. Only Argentina, another GMO breadbasket, has expressed any interest in the crusade.

The bluster has not impressed politicians across the pond. E.U. Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy responded: “If there was to be litigation, of course we would fight it, and I believe we would win it.”

A WTO case is far more likely to alienate Europeans than persuade them, E.U. officials warn. They have asked the Bush administration to be patient and allow the political process to unfold. At a February press conference, Franz Fischler, the E.U. farm commissioner, explained: “We are in the final phases of passing our laws in Parliament, and we would strongly advise not to start an action that would disrupt that.”

Expecting a renewed push now that the war in Iraq is over, Europeans remain wary. The philosophical rift between Europe and the United States over GMOs is wider—and stormier—than the Atlantic. America unflinchingly added GMOs to the menu in 1996 (though a modified tomato had flopped two years before). Experts estimate that 70 percent of processed goods in U.S. supermarkets contain engineered ingredients.

Soybeans, corn and canola oil are the main genetically engineered crops in America. These staples appear in bread, cereal, crackers, flour, pasta, margarine, chocolate, candy and ice cream. Not even infant formula is au naturel any more—though manufacturers are not required to indicate that on the packaging.

So far, biotech companies have filed 19 applications to sell genetically modified products in Europe. Many Europeans see this as selling out to agribusiness and international pressure. American critics consider the E.U. application process a sham that would require U.S. growers to completely transform their processes for growing and storing food.

Europeans might agree. Because of the way they’re grown, says Pete Riley from Friends of the Earth U.K., few American crops would pass muster. “The European market wants to track food from the field to the plate,” he says.

The intent is to be able to quickly pre-empt disasters like the outbreak of mad cow disease that struck Europe during the ’90s. “We see this as quite modern and 21st century,” Riley continues, “while the American system seems quite backward and 17th century.”

Yet trade officials are unlikely to respect Europe’s autonomy when agribusiness companies like Monsanto are faltering financially. A WTO case could last three years, sparking immense bitterness between the two blocs.

Improperly handled, modified genes could imbalance the ecosystem and agriculture—and mistakes have already been made. Critics accuse Monsanto and other big biotech companies of trying to contaminate the entire world’s seed stock, thereby rendering the debate over GMOs moot. With stakes so high, Winters says, “This case could undermine the entire legitimacy of the WTO.”

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