TCS Daily

Will Protectionism Trump Science?

By Nick Smith - June 19, 2003 12:00 AM

In the summer of 1999, the journal Nature published a study suggesting that pollen from genetically modified corn might harm monarch butterfly populations, sparking a worldwide controversy over transgenic food crops. While follow-up studies have proven the pollen presents no danger to monarchs, the foundations of fear had been set, and soon other allegations regarding the safety of plant biotechnology emerged.

In response, the House Science Subcommittee on Research, which I chair, held a series of hearings investigating the potential benefits and safety concerns associated with plant biotechnology. Our findings, compiled in a comprehensive report Seeds of Opportunity, showed that crops developed through biotech were just as safe as those developed through conventional means. We concluded that regulatory decisions should be based on the characteristics of the product, not the process by which it was developed.

Today, more than three years since we released the report, its findings still hold true, and are now backed by an even greater body of scientific evidence supporting the safety of genetically modified crops. For these reasons, the Bush administration was right to announce that the United States would move ahead with a World Trade Organization challenge to the European Union's import ban on genetically modified (GM) crops.

Since the announcement, many have focused on the potential of the move to further damage already strained relations with European allies. Nature opined that the United States action "opened hostilities" in a transgenic trade war, and The New York Times said the move was "almost certain to exacerbate the divisions between Washington and Europe that emerged before the war in Iraq."

But any reasonable examination of the facts surrounding the challenge reveal that, like U.S. efforts with the United Nations leading up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration is simply working to see that rules negotiated and agreed upon by an international body are enforced.

WTO rules, while allowing countries to reject imports on the basis of health and environmental concerns, require that any such policy be supported by scientific evidence. However, the EU has refused to process new applications for trade of transgenic food crops since 1998 without even attempting to demonstrate a compelling scientific reason for the ban, effectively denying American farmers more than $300 million annually from corn exports alone.

It is difficult to conclude anything except that the trade "hostilities" originated with the EU's baseless protectionism. Even EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom has admitted as much, saying almost three years ago, "We have already waited too long to act. The moratorium is illegal and not justified." Fortunately, unlike the United Nations, the WTO is a respected and useful international body, largely independent of the political influences that paralyze the U.N., and there is no reason to believe that the United States and the 12 other countries supporting our case will lose the challenge.

Enter Africa. While the EU stance on GM crops is simply an unfair economic burden on American farmers, it is also, as President Bush rightly charged recently, an unjust burden upon the world's poorest continent. With approximately 180 million undernourished people, and perennial low yields brought on by drought, insects, and other disasters, Africa stands to benefit tremendously from GM crops.

Yet, the EU is exploiting Africa's dependency on the EU as a trading partner to stall acceptance of GM crops. For example, with its population literally starving last year, Zambia rejected 23,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid because of fears that Europe would respond by rejecting its future corn exports. Perhaps more importantly, there is also at least some evidence that EU pressure is impeding research on new transgenic crop varieties critical to bringing Africa closer to sustainability. In Uganda, where pests have devastated banana crops in recent years, a biotech variety ready for field trials was left in the freezer because of trade concerns. The House Research Subcommittee will be examining the barriers to biotech R&D in Africa in more detail at an upcoming hearing.

Sound science, not protectionism masquerading beneath a thin veil of unfounded fears, should drive trade and regulatory decisions associated with transgenic food crops. The U.S. challenge moves us one step closer to removing the unfair barriers that hurt American farmers and deny the people of Africa a powerful tool for combating hunger.

Rep. Nick Smith, R-Mich., is chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Research and a member of the House Agriculture and International Relations. Committees.

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