02 December 2002.
NEIL KING JR. Staff Reporter of
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- If the Bush administration decides to
knock heads with Europe over its ban on new U.S.
biotech foods, the reason will lie less in France or
Italy than in drought-hit Zambia.
Though facing a serious famine, Zambian officials
decided to turn away 26,000 tons of U.S. food aid in
October, saying the shipments contained genetically
modified corn that wasn't safe. The kernels, Zambia's
agriculture minister said, could pollute the country's
seed stock and hurt its export markets.
To Bush aides, the move was stark proof that Europe's
antibiotech crusade has hit home even in countries
critically short on food. But the deeper fear is this:
That as Zambia goes, so may go many of the big food
markets in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East,
where there are also rumblings of European-style
unease over genetically modified crops and the need to
block them from entry.
So how to stem the tide? Administration officials say
they may have only one choice: to file a case at the
World Trade Organization against the European Union's
four-year moratorium on approving new U.S. biotech
foods. The argument would be that the ban is purely
political and based on no scientific finding of risk.
"Europe is ground zero, but it is not at all the whole
of our concern," says one U.S. trade official. "If we
allow Europe to flout science and the international
trading system, nothing will prevent others from doing
Whether to pursue a WTO biotech suit is now a matter
of intense administration debate as officials strive
to craft a recommendation for the White House by early
next year. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick
is said to favor going forward, but some senior State
Department officials worry a food fight could
complicate relations with Europe at a delicate time.
The lack of glee is understandable. Even proponents of
lodging a case concede that a U.S. victory at the WTO
would strain relations with the Continent, anger EU
consumers and tar the image of U.S. food products --
all without prying open the European market. The
Europeans, even with an adverse ruling, still wouldn't
be likely to let in new U.S. biotech products.
European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy, meanwhile,
warns that a WTO suit would "freeze" all efforts
within the EU's executive arm to convince member
states to lift the ban.
Environmentalists, too, think it would be pointless.
"No WTO case is going to get EU consumers to eat what
they don't want to eat," says Charles Margulis, a
Greenpeace biotech adviser.
But the crucial upside, U.S. officials say, could be
elsewhere. They cite the continuing feud with Europe
over its refusal to allow in U.S. beef containing
growth hormones. The United States won a beef-hormone
case against Europe at the WTO four years ago. The
victory did nothing to change EU behavior, but it did
keep other countries from imposing similar bans.
"There's no question that the hormone case sent a very
strong message to the rest of the world that these
types of trade restrictions are not acceptable in the
WTO. And in that sense, it was an important U.S.
victory," says Peter Scher, a former agricultural
trade negotiator in the Clinton administration.
The U.S. is overwhelmingly the world's largest planter
of genetically modified crops -- mainly soybeans,
cotton and corn. Much of that now is shipped along
with regular crops to Japan, China, the Middle East
and Southeast Asia, with total exports topping $12
billion a year. These products also make their way
into everything from bread to beer.
The EU biotech moratorium, in place since 1998, has
hit U.S. corn exporters hardest by blocking an
estimated $250 million in annual sales. The six EU
states backing the ban, among them Austria and France,
say they will stick to it until the EU puts in place
proposed consumer rules that U.S. food exporters say
could cause even worse havoc.
Under an agreement struck last week, everything from
breakfast cereals to animal feed with more than 0.9%
of genetically modified ingredients will need a label.
Another proposal may require companies that deem a
product GMO-free to keep five- year records proving
that no ingredient, all the way back to the farm, ever
crossed paths with anything bioengineered.
"This would be crazy and impossible to put into
practice," says Mari Stull, head of international
policy at the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a
Washington-based industry group.
A large swath of the U.S. farm sector urged Mr.
Zoellick in a letter last month to "end U.S. patience"
and pursue a WTO case at once. One reason: Europe's
actions "may be negatively affecting the attitudes and
actions of other countries."
EU diplomats say their policies and the views of EU
consumers, don't dictate what others do halfway around
the world. They also reject suggestions that Europe
played any role in Zambia's turning down the U.S. food
But on many fronts, the ripple effect is clear. In a
classic example last week, the Illinois Farm Bureau
urged growers in the state to avoid all GMO corn
varieties not approved for the EU market -- the first
such state bureau to do so. The concern, the bureau
said, is that unapproved strains might mingle with
approved ones, causing the EU to block all Illinois
corn: a fear similar to that expressed in Zambia.
Various European-style labeling regimes are either in
place or being considered in countries as disparate as
South Korea, Japan, Israel, Egypt and Mexico. China
caused a row with the U.S. this summer when it imposed
biotech rules that crimped the flow of U.S. soybeans.
Meanwhile, the fight over whether to allow planting of
biotech seeds has grown intense in Africa, India and
parts of Latin America.
Mr. Zoellick has assiduously sought allies in the tug
of war with Europe. Biotech crops were a major theme
of his travels to Kenya, South Africa and Botswana
this year and he has banged on the issue across South
America. But if he goes to the mat with the EU, those
in his corner will be few: Canada, Argentina,
Australia, the Philippines, maybe Brazil and South
U.S. officials say that somehow they must lay down a
marker. "We have been very, very patient," another
administration official says. "But our patience is