Commentary: Europe’s Ban on GMOs Is Still Firmly In Place

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There is an old saying among political veterans in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Washington that when something has been said three times it becomes a fact.  The same maxim apparently also applies in Brussels. Yesterday, the European Union's draconian labeling rules for genetically modified foods went into effect, a step that is supposed to help end the EU's illegal five-year moratorium on approvals of new GM crop varieties.


EU Commissioner for Food Safety David Byrne has promised that the EU will soon approve an insect-resistant sweet corn variety—a move he argues will obviate a World Trade Organization complaint by the United States and other countries against the moratorium.  “Quite obviously, if authorizations are made, a WTO panel wouldn't have any work to do . . . I would expect the [WTO] case to fall away, in one way or another,” he added.


Mr. Byrne's glib observation is an example not only of hoping that repetition will create facts, but also of whistling past the graveyard.  Even if the EU itself were to resume approvals, developers of GM crops would still confront other obstacles: A voting structure that allows a minority of European countries to refuse registration for new GM products, as well as unscientific, Draconian, hugely expensive new EU regulatory requirements.  These include the strict labeling regime, which requires GM foods to be identified; the segregation of GM from conventional products; and “traceability,” so that GM ingredients can be traced through every step of the food chain all the way back to the farm where they were grown.


European officials, including Mr. Byrne himself, have acknowledged that the labeling and traceability rules have nothing to do with protecting consumer health or the natural environment.  An analysis by the EU itself that summarizes the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning 15 years concluded that because GM plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable scientific techniques, they are at least as safe, and often safer, than their conventional counterparts are.


Literally thousands of laboratory, greenhouse, and field studies show that the risks of GM plants and foods are minimal, their benefits are legion, and their future potential is extraordinary.  Globally, the adoption of GM crops—by more than seven million farmers in 18 countries—has reduced pesticide use by tens of millions of kilograms annually and saved billions of kilograms of topsoil from erosion.  In less-developed countries such as China and South Africa, GM crops have increased yields, raised the incomes of resource-poor farmers, and reduced occupational exposure to chemical pesticides.  Future increases in the adoption and diffusion of GM crops could improve human nutrition, reduce the amount of land and water needed to produce food, and save ecosystems from fragmentation and destruction.


European leaders make no apologies for regulatory policies toward GM that pander shamefully to uninformed public opinion that verges on superstition.  Commissioner Byrne has pointed out that in spite of repeated scientific assurances about the safety of consuming GM food products, European public attitudes have not moderated.  “The science-based message simply fails to get across,” he said.  Apparently, it never occurred to Mr. Byrne that the public would interpret greater regulation as implying greater risk.


Are Europeans venal?  Stupid?  Intent on economic suicide?  We'll leave those judgments to others, but on the subject of GM crops and foods, they have left themselves little wiggle room.  GM research and development in Europe has virtually disappeared, the victim of debilitating regulation, unrelenting attacks by activists, and public opprobrium.  Since 1998, 61 percent of the private-sector institutions surveyed by the European Commission's Joint Research Center have canceled research projects that involve GM technology, and there has been a near-meltdown of field trials of GM-improved organisms.  From an unimpressive peak level of 264 field trials in Europe in 1997, there were only 35 in 2002.  Thus, the EU's only viable strategy may be to poison the well—to make sure that agricultural applications of GM fail everywhere and that no competitor remains standing.


Even if for reasons of economics, beneficence, or commitment to good government, the Europeans wished to rationalize their approach to GM products, they would be stymied by Europe's commitment to the so-called precautionary principle, which holds that while the evidence about a product, technology, or activity is any way incomplete, it should be prohibited, or at the least, heavily regulated.  The precautionary principle forces society to ignore proven benefits in a costly effort to eliminate hypothetical risks that are small or easily manageable.  It not only obstructs important new technologies, but also diverts societal resources from more significant dangers.


The precautionary principle is routinely used in Europe as justification for egregious regulatory abuses of GM products.  French, German, and Italian ministries have blocked the cultivation of GM crops even after they received clean bills of health from their own regulatory authorities.  And last month, Bayer CropScience announced that as a result of excessively precautionary restrictions imposed by the U.K.'s environment ministry, the company is giving up plans to grow GM maize in the U.K.


Such events offer insight into why Brussels' lifting of the moratorium on approvals will have little impact.


No one should be fooled by the EU's promises to resume authorizations of GM crops—or even by its doing so.  Such theatrics, and David Byrne's disingenuous statements, are merely a ruse to get the U.S. and other countries to end their WTO challenge to unscientific, anti-social EU policies.  And even if we don't repeat that over and over, it's a fact.