U.S., EU Launch High-Stakes Food Fight

Published September 1, 2003

In late May, the United States filed a World Trade Organization suit against the European Union (EU) over its ban on biotech foods. Urban columnists came to the EU’s defense, endorsing consumers’ right to choose whether to eat biotech foods.

Consumers, of course, have the non-biotech choice of buying organic, and there’s nothing preventing stores from labeling foods “biotech free.” But this is far more than a food fight.

In a very real sense, it’s the same struggle recently demonstrated in Iraq between Old Europe’s short-sighted, protect-our-corrupt-contracts approach to world issues and America’s hopeful tradition that problems can be resolved through such growth engines as research, knowledge, democracy, and free trade.

Importance of Biotech

The biotech industry’s latest achievement is a revolutionary new drug to prevent (not simply treat, but prevent) severe asthma attacks. It could eliminate the severe, breath-robbing asthma bouts that make about three million Americans frequently fear for their very lives.

The speed of biotech is helping our flu vaccines keep up with that ever-changing and periodically deadly virus. Biotech potatoes, papayas, and bananas represent humanity’s first major victories over food-robbing crop viruses. Biotech may also conquer such awful diseases as viral pneumonia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer.

Golden rice, bio-engineered to help millions of rice-culture kids avoid blindness from severe deficiencies of Vitamin A, is still blocked from distribution because of “safety concerns.” Meanwhile, researchers are working on newer strains of golden rice that will deliver even more Vitamin A potential.

Biotech researchers have learned to remove the natural allergens from such risky-but-nutritious foods as peanuts and soybeans, which cause millions of allergy attacks every year. Our foods are becoming safer because of biotech; so much for the anti-biotech crowd’s “biotech will poison you” argument.

In fact, the EU Commission and the EU Health Commissioner, David Byrne, say biotech foods are probably safer than conventional foods because of the precision of the transformations and the extensive testing they’ve undergone.

Selfish Motives

Selfish financial reasons appear to be the only remaining logical reason the EU governments and the organic food industry have lashed themselves to the anti-biotech campaign.

Banning biotech imports (or any imports) protects Europe’s artificially high farm prices. For 15 years, the EU has banned beef growth hormones that permit farmers to produce more lean meat per animal with less feed. The hormones would have aggravated the EU beef surplus. The rest of the world has since used the approved hormones with no health problems–and has been rewarded with lower-cost and heart-healthier meat.

The organic food industry has created its high-price market niche by rejecting virtually every agricultural research breakthrough of the past century–except irradiated seeds. For some reason, the organic industry has had no problem with planting crop varieties developed by bombarding seeds with mutagenic gamma rays, including the barley for one of Britain’s most popular organic beers.

Both Europe and the organic food industry fundamentally oppose the high-tech farming that has enabled the world to feed six billion people today on the same cropland that fed one billion people 50 years ago. (In 1999, the Bichel Committee, a high-level Danish government technical committee, reported that an organic mandate for Denmark’s agriculture would cut its human food production by 47 percent.)

America, by contrast, has been pioneering agricultural research since Abraham Lincoln created the land-grant colleges and their agricultural research stations in 1862. Americans created the first hybrid seeds, the first mechanical reaper, lightweight gasoline tractors (releasing 30 million acres of draft horse pasture for human food crops), and many of the pesticides that protect the world’s food supplies from destructive and wasteful insects, weeds, bacteria, and fungi.

Americans founded what’s now the FutureHarvest network of international agricultural research stations for the Third World. Their research has saved billions of people from starving over the past 30 years.

The aim of the EU biotech ban is not consumer choice but government decision-making. The aim of today’s anti-biotech activists is to take away individual choices, and replace them with politicized decisions they can control. The shape of tomorrow’s world is at stake.

Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, Virginia and is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

on the Center for Global Food Issues, visit its Web site at http://www.cgfi.org/.