Time for the GM Moratorium to Go

After months of anticipation, the U.S. government is expected to file a formal complaint today with the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s five-year moratorium on new genetically modified crop varieties. The move will undoubtedly be ridiculed as a cynical attempt by Americans to force GM products down the throats of skeptical Europeans. Yet, while the U.S. is surely motivated by a parochial desire to aid American farmers, filing such a complaint will have benefits far beyond U.S. borders. The biggest beneficiaries are sure to be resource-poor farmers in less developed countries.

By now, many readers will be familiar with the story of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who, last autumn, rejected some 23,000 metric tons of food aid in the midst of a two-year-long drought that threatened the lives of over two million Zambians. President Mwanawasa’s public explanation was that the GM maize from the United States was “poison.” But other Zambian government officials conceded that the bigger concern was for future corn exports to the EU market. If even a little of the food aid were diverted to seed stock, it could threaten the exportability of the entire Zambian maize crop for many years to come.

Zambia is not unique. European GM restrictions have had other, similar, consequences throughout the developing world. Thai government officials have been warned by European importers not to authorize any GM rice varieties. Uganda has stopped research on GM bananas and postponed their introduction indefinitely. Argentina has limited its approvals to two GM crop varieties that are already permitted in European markets. Even China, which has spent hundreds of millions of euros funding advanced biotechnology research, has refused to authorize any new GM food crops since the moratorium began. Critics often deride GM crops with built-in pest, weed, and disease resistance as helpful only for wealthy farmers in industrialized nations; but developing countries could benefit tremendously from the adoption of GM crops. As much as 40 percent of conventional crop productivity in Africa and Asia is lost to insect pests, weeds, and plant diseases.

But many of the same GM crops available in North America are already helping poor farmers in South Africa, India, China, and the Philippines combat often-voracious insects while reducing the amount of insecticides or eliminating them altogether. Indeed, studies of South African and Chinese cotton growers suggest that small farmers actually achieve disproportionately higher benefits from GM relative to larger competitors because expensive machinery can at times be made obsolete. What’s more, GM crops with added nutritional benefits—such as the much- touted golden rice and high-protein sweet potatoes—are likely to be available within a few years. Still, the EU moratorium persists after five long years despite copious evidence that genetic modification does not pose any risks that aren’t also present in other crop-breeding methods. A review of 81 separate research projects, conducted over 15 years and funded exclusively by the EU, found that GM crops and foods are just as safe for the environment and for human consumption as conventional crops, and in some cases are even safer because the genetic changes in the plants are much more precise. Dozens of scientific organizations, including the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, have studied GM techniques and given them a clean bill of health. And in December, the French Academies of Medicine and Science added their names to that growing list and called for an end to the moratorium.

Some will claim that the EU is already set to end the moratorium just as soon as its new approval regulations and labeling and traceability rules are implemented by member nations. Why risk a consumer backlash at a time when the moratorium’s end is within sight? But this naive assertion overlooks four important facts. First, several EU members have already missed the first deadline for implementing the new GM rules, and debates still rage over the coexistence of GM, conventional, and organic crops. How close are they really to ending the moratorium? Second, even if implementation is ultimately completed, what is to prevent individual members from ignoring the EU-wide rules? The European Commission has been famously impotent in pressing Austria, Luxembourg, and Italy to accept GM products that have already been approved by the EU. Third, the new GM labeling and traceability rules are hardly an improvement on the current situation. Industrialized countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia may be able to comply.

But for poor developing countries, the added cost and complexity of the labeling and traceability rules would only replace a de jure ban with a de facto one, shutting them out of the GM revolution for good. Fourth, special regulations based solely on the process used in a product’s creation are just as illegal as a ban under the terms of international treaties signed and ratified by the EU. So, the new GM rules don’t even serve to bring the EU into WTO compliance. Nor are they needed, since voluntarily labeled non- GM foods can be found in almost every shop in Western Europe, giving consumers choice. Interestingly, studies of consumer behavior show that, where labeled GM foods and labeled non-GM foods are available, even most European consumers seem to be indifferent to the “genetic status” of the goods they purchase. Indeed, the best possible scenario for all involved would be to end the moratorium immediately and genuinely expand consumers’ ability to choose. The EU’s blatant flaunting of scientific assessments is why a WTO challenge is likely to succeed. And the fact that less developed countries are most likely to benefit is why the United States should file it. A decision by the 140-member World Trade Organization would send an important signal from the international community that the EU’s groundless and genuinely harmful biotechnology restrictions must go.