TCS Daily

Fearing a Food Fight

By James K. Glassman - January 29, 2003 12:00 AM

There are times when the United States is right and Europe - especially what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld calls "Old Europe" - is wrong.

Strategy toward lethal threats from countries in the Middle East is one obvious example. Another, cited by my American Enterprise Institute colleague John E. Calfee here last week, is American opposition to encouraging poor nations to import generic versions of drugs - further weakening patent protections and removing incentives for pharmaceutical firms to continue investing billions of dollars each year in the research that makes people healthier in the first place.

When you believe you're right, you help neither yourself nor your opponent by shrinking from advocacy. In fact, you have an obligation to make the case as forcefully and as intelligently as you can.

The paragraph above is so obvious, it embarrasses me to write it. But, unfortunately, in these timid times, it's necessary.

Consider an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Jan. 25 by the ubiquitous Clyde Prestowitz, a former Reagan administration trade official who is now president of the Economic Strategy Institute. The headline: "Don't Pester Europe on Genetically Modified Food."

That sounds like a joke, a headline likely to be found in The Onion. But in the current atmosphere - which recalls the old Noel Coward song, "Let's Not Be Beastly to the Germans" - it's deadly serious.

A few years ago, the European Union slapped a ban on the import of genetically modified (GM) foods, which, at this point in history, are mainly staples like corn and soybeans. The United States has been using GM food since the mid-1990s with no damage to health or environment. European policymakers know this. Their ban is based, not on science, but on 1) superstitious, knee-jerk opposition to new technology, and 2) unabashed protectionism.

The ban hurts, not just the U.S., but European consumers and, most of all, the poor nations of the world. At the United Nations sustainability summit in Johannesburg last year, for example, African and Indian farmers complained that Europe was impoverishing them by barring GM foods that they could produce cheaply and safely on their small plots. Even worse, European environmental groups convinced some African leaders to reject U.S. gifts of grain - some of it produced with GM methods - rather than feed starving citizens.

The Bush administration, to its credit, wants to help the cause of the poor of the world - and, by the way, strike a blow for sound science - by taking action against Europe under the WTO. As Prestowitz admits, the European ban "is almost certainly a violation of World Trade Organization rules." Still, he argues in his piece that U.S. action is "a profoundly bad idea."


Well, writes Prestowitz, "rationally or not, many...Europeans are scared to death of genetically modified food." We should respect those fears, he says - just, I suppose, as people in Galileo's time should have respected the Church's superstitious belief that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

Also, he writes, "food is to European culture what free speech is to American culture," and to force Europe to accept GM imports "is bound to be felt in Europe as another exercise in American cultural and economic imperialism."

Oh, please! Europeans may be hung up on food (who isn't? I love the stuff), but they are not so retrograde as not to recognize that they can make choices. Simply allowing GM imports is not tantamount to buying and eating GM food. The U.S. now allows the import of foie gras, but not many people feel required to eat it.

His arguments are so weak that you wonder what an intelligent person like Clyde Prestowitz is really up to. He tells us near the end: "We have already caused great resentment among our European allies by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and the International Criminal Court.... Given that we will want European support for whatever actions we eventually decide to take in the Persian Gulf or North Korea, is this really the time to mount what is bound to be a bitter, high-profile case in order to sell genetically modified potatoes?"

In a word, yes.

Europeans should know that the United States believes in sound science, sound economics, sound jurisprudence and sound security policy. Of course, we will make compromises. For example, if the French and the Germans said they would send troops to fight Saddam Hussein if we would only back off on taking our GM-food case to the WTO, we might want to take the bargain.

But that's not what Prestowitz is saying. There's no such deal on the table, and there never will be. Europeans, like Asians and Arabs and everyone else, become emboldened by weakness. If we ignore our principles and tolerate the GM ban, it is more likely that Europeans will press for more nonsense of this sort, rather than retreating. Does Prestowitz really believe that claims of cultural imperialism (whatever that means) will die down if we roll over on GM imports? Of course not.

Superstitions about genetically modified food are not merely denying the U.S. revenues from trade. These fears and fantasies are literally killing people, and there is no reason for Americans to pander. We do Europe and the rest of the world a favor by standing firm - not as pigheaded imperialists but as advocates of reason and free choice.

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