Published on Friday, June 13, 2003 by the
International Herald Tribune
by Kathleen McAfee
HAVEN, Connecticut -- The dispute over whether
countries may decline imports of genetically
engineered seeds and foods, long a point of contention
between the United States and developing countries, is
straining relations between America and Europe as
The battle reflects an intensifying struggle between
government-backed U.S. agribusiness and farmers
worldwide. It is often portrayed as a debate about
science, but also at stake are issues of environmental
risk and economic and cultural sovereignty. Will
countries and farmers in a globalized economy retain
any choice over what they eat, what they produce and
what kind of agriculture systems they employ?
Present European Union policies restrict imports of
genetically modified food and the release of
genetically engineered living organisms into the
environment. Revisions under discussion would allow
modified imports, but require that they be labeled as
In Europe, where agricultural landscapes and local
products are highly valued, experience with mad cow
disease has heightened distrust of large-scale,
industrialized farming. U.S. officials contend that
such attitudes are irrational and that EU regulations
are not based on scientific evidence.
On May 13, to the dismay of diplomats on both sides of
the Atlantic, the United States announced that it will
file a complaint against the EU moratorium that has
kept genetically modified food off store shelves in
Europe. A week later, President George W. Bush accused
the EU of contributing to hunger in Africa by blocking
imports from the United States of "high-yield
bio-crops," which he called "more productive." The
U.S. trade representative, Robert Zoellick, has called
the EU policies "Luddite," "immoral," and an unfair
trade practice harmful to America.
U.S. officials charge that current European attitudes
force developing countries that want to export to
Europe to adopt policies that are against the
interests of their own peoples, as when southern
African governments rejected famine relief in the form
of American genetically modified corn late last year.
Actually, few African exports to Europe would be
affected by current EU rules. When they declined U.S.
genetically modified food aid, southern African
governments had other concerns. One was the possible
health risk of consuming unprocessed modified corn,
which is not a major part of U.S. diets. The other was
the unknown consequences of releasing modified corn
into ecosystems in southern Africa, where corn is the
main staple grain.
Until these concerns could be addressed, African
governments asked the United States to follow World
Food Program guidelines by providing funds to purchase
locally preferred and appropriate foods, as other
donor countries did.
The U.S. argument that such policies are "immoral"
takes as a given that modified crops have been proven
to be free of health or environmental hazards. It also
presumes that modified crops would reduce African
hunger because they yield more than conventional
In fact, average yields from currently available
modified food-crop seeds are slightly lower than
yields of comparable nonmodified varieties. This is
not surprising, because modified crops have been
designed mainly to deal with pest problems, not to
produce more food. Crop genetic engineering is a long
way from developing varieties that could produce more
food under African conditions.
Meanwhile, transnational companies that have patented
much of the current genetic-engineering technology -
as well as genes - have little incentive to invest in
developing crops for countries where farmers are too
poor to buy premium seeds and agrochemicals.
In any case, lack of quality crop varieties is not the
major obstacle to African food production; the bigger
problems in Africa are poor roads and storage
facilities, lack of credit and fertilizer, degraded
soils, labor shortages and farm prices depressed by
imports of cheap food from the United States and
Europe, where agriculture is heavily subsidized.
In addition, the question of environmental risk is
proving more vexing than enthusiasts of genetic
modification first thought. Some scientists worry that
synthetic genes and their products may contribute to
the loss of vital maize genetic diversity, or that
they may damage soil microbes and other organisms that
keep agro-ecosystems productive.
Until such ecological problems have been solved,
countries may reasonably prefer not to accept
genetically modified seeds. The U.S. Department of
Agriculture, the U.S. Agency for International
Development and the trade representative's office have
nonetheless made the promotion of genetically modified
crops a policy priority. The United States has fought
hard against the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a
global treaty that will give countries the option to
decline genetically modified seed imports if they are
shown to pose ecological or socioeconomic risks.
Promoters of U.S. farm exports argue that low-income
countries that are losing their food self-sufficiency
as markets become global are actually better off
because their farming systems are inefficient.
But flooding world markets with the products of U.S.
agriculture creates dangerous patterns of dependence,
puts farmers in developing countries out of business,
undermines rural communities and rarely helps the
hungry. Until the United States is prepared to offer
Africa what it really needs to overcome famine -
support for infrastructure, inputs, marketing, fair
pricing, and farmer-centered research on sustainable
farm management and local crop improvement - it should
stop lecturing anyone about morality.
The writer is an assistant professor of geography
and sustainable development at the Yale School of
Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune