Europe vs. Biotech

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The following letter from an ACSH Advisor appeared in the March 11, 2002 Wall Street Journal:

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick courted African countries' support for biotechnology-derived crops while on a grand tour of Africa last month. Before the trip, he accused the Europeans of "going around Africa and trying to scare people," and he blasted biotech's adversaries, calling their opposition "equivalent to that period when people were opposed to machines."

During the trip, he criticized European countries' arm-twisting of African leaders to get them to reject or over-regulate the new crop varieties. Zoellick even threatened to fire the first salvo in what could evolve into a major trade war, admitting that the U.S. is "strongly considering" filing a World Trade Organization complaint against the European Union for blocking the import of American gene-spliced plant materials.

However, before getting off a single shot, Zoellick is being outflanked by the Europeans and others at the deliberations of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the joint food standards program of the United Nations, whose ongoing task force on gene-spliced foods is meeting in Japan this week.

During two years of negotiations by the task force, the Europeans and NGOs (which are permitted full participation) have trampled U.S. interests. The participants have willfully ignored scientific principles and the basic axiom that the degree of regulatory scrutiny should be proportionate to risk. They have also disregarded the scientific consensus that the new biotechnology, or gene-splicing, is a refinement of older, traditional techniques of genetic modification. They have moved deliberately toward circumscribing gene-spliced food products with various Draconian and even bizarre regulatory requirements that will impair the competitiveness of these products in the marketplace and limit their use.

Derailing the development of gene-spliced foods is precisely the agenda of many of those on the task force, and the reason is clear. As Wellesley College political scientist Robert Paarlberg has observed, the products of agricultural biotechnology have been "developed mostly in U.S. laboratories, widely adopted by U.S. farmers, and pushed out onto the world market by U.S. companies with the support of the U.S. government." In other words, agricultural biotechnology is an icon of American technological success and supremacy, and our trading partners intend, therefore, to punish it.

The Codex task force is en route to codifying various procedures and requirements more appropriate to potentially dangerous prescription drugs and pesticides than to new, improved varieties of tomatoes, potatoes, and strawberries. These standards include long-term monitoring for adverse health effects and batteries of tests for composition, genetic stability, toxins, allergenicity, and so on. None of the foods modified by less precise, less predictable traditional techniques which comprise virtually the entire diet of Europeans and Americans could (or should) meet these standards.

The prospect of unduly burdensome Codex standards for gene-spliced foods is ominous, both for the prospects of the technology itself and for U.S. hopes of WTO relief from European protectionism because members of the World Trade Organization will, in principle, be required to abide by those standards. In other words, the standards will provide cover for unfair trade practices, because with these measures in place, a country that wishes to block trade in gene-spliced foods for any reason can defend against charges of unfair trade practices simply by remonstrating that it's deferring to Codex.

These unscientific regulations and standards will harm the environment and public health by stifling the development of innovations that can increase agricultural productivity and supplant agricultural chemicals. Experts at the U.N. and in academia have warned that the greatest single threat to the planet's environment comes from the world's burgeoning population and its demand that ever more land be brought into food production. Yet an important answer developing more productive plant varieties will be blocked by expensive regulation of gene-spliced techniques.

Although efforts should be made to reassure the public that gene-splicing techniques are in fact safer than more traditional methods of genetic modification, excessive regulation is not the way to do so. As the president of a U.S. national consumer organization testified a decade ago to a federal investigative panel, "For obvious reasons, the consumer views the technologies that are most regulated to be the least safe ones. Heavy involvement by government, no matter how well intended, inevitably sends the wrong signals. Rather than ensuring confidence, it raises suspicion and doubt."

Regulation should focus on real risks and should not be triggered by the use of one technique or another. If the current Codex approach is adopted, the costs of biotechnology R&D will be greatly (and unnecessarily) inflated. The result will be essentially irreversible constraints on innovation and trade. It is moot whether there exists a level playing field if that field is knee-deep in mud. No agreement at all would be a far better outcome than one whose flaws are as manifest and pernicious (and permanent) as in the Codex proposals.

Trade Representative Zoellick needs to take a hard line not only with the Europeans but also with the weak-kneed FDA and USDA regulators who run the U.S. delegation to Codex. The United States's position should be clear and unequivocal: The regulation of foods derived from the new biotechnology must make scientific and common sense.

Henry I. Miller is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and an advisor to the US delegation to the Codex Alimentarius Commission task force on biotech foods. He was an FDA official from 1979 to 1994.