Corbett B. Daly
A top European official said Oct. 21 the rift between Europe and the United States over so-called "Frankenstein foods" could cause a trade war between the two economic powerhouses.
"This is a potentially major trade problem," John Richardson, deputy head of the European delegation in Washington, D.C., told executives and diplomats attending a conference on the issue, referring to a debate Washington is having with Brussels and other governments over genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Under consumer pressure stemming from fears about biotech foods, the European Union has not approved any new GM crops since April 1998.
Richardson said the European Commission recently adopted a new labeling scheme for genetically modified foods as a way to ease the tensions, but warned that different attitudes in the United States and Europe about changing the biological composition of food indicate it could be decades before the issue disappears.
"I suspect it may take some time, perhaps it may even take a generation for biotech to be really accepted in Europe," Richardson said in remarks at a Washington International Trade Association forum entitled "GMOs: Trade Implications of the Transatlantic Food Fight."
Earlier Oct. 21, the EU in Brussels announced that it would make labeling compulsory for foods with at least 1 percent of one ingredient that contained genetically modified material, ending months of uncertainty (see related story in this section).
Stubborn Cultural Differences
Richardson said historical and cultural differences between the United States and Europe illustrate the different attitudes toward GMOs. He said Europeans are more risk-averse and traditionally shy away from taking uncertain steps, whereas Americans are more likely to embrace change and deal with the consequences after they become evident.
This is best illustrated in the European interpretation of the "precautionary principle" of the World Trade Organization Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) agreement, which permits governments, under emergency situations, to temporarily restrict imports on the basis of health or safety risk assessments not fully supported by scientific evidence, he said.
Richardson said GMOs would be an important part of the agenda in the new round of trade talks to be launched at the WTO ministerial meetings set to take place in Seattle Nov. 30-Dec. 3.
But Richardson said biotech issues have become more important over the past decade, and Brussels would like to have a better understanding of the rules.
EU Wants Rules 'Clarification.'
"We believe the WTO needs to be brought up to date to reflect the way the world has changed over the last 10 years," Richardson said. "To the extent that WTO rules are not as clear as they could be about how we treat these products in worldwide trade, we believe there is a need for clarification." The United States opposes any "re-opening" of the SPS agreement signed at the end of 1993 as part of the Uruguay Round negotiations. The main focus of the agreement was meant to assure that sanitary and phytosanitary measures, if taken by governments to protect human or animal health, were based on scientific evidence and not be used to restrict trade.
Timothy J. Galvin, administrator of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Foreign Agricultural Service, said the United States has a more "focused approach" to the new round. He said Washington wants to tackle issues it can handle realistically, and not put too many pots on the stove.
"We're not trying to fix every perceived problem in biotech," he said. "We are really focused on the central problem, the breakdown in certain countries, primarily in the EU, with respect to review and approval of these products, and that's why we said our goal would be to see that these approval systems are transparent, timely, predictable, and science-based."
USDA Praises Prodi Proposal
Galvin welcomed a recent speech given by European Commission President Romani Prodi that called for the establishment of an independent food safety agency and the need for a clarification of the "precautionary principle."
Richardson acknowledged that the "precautionary principle" could be interpreted many ways.
"We'll emphasize the 'precautionary principle,' but there's a whole debate in Europe about what exactly that is, how it should be defined, and what its limits should be," he said.
Many businesses oppose labeling because they say consumers view them as safety warnings. Richardson said public education would be key to the success of genetically modified foods in Europe, but said they probably would not become as accepted as they are in the United States until they become cheaper than unmodified products.
"I rather suspect that it will be only solved when biotech products are so much cheaper than non-GM products that consumers will buy them despite them being labeled as GM products because they are so much cheaper," he said.
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Last Updated on 10/28/99
By Karen Lutz