TCS Daily

Crop Circles

By Lene Johansen - August 3, 2005 12:00 AM

The expected World Trade Organization arbitration in the fight between Washington and Brussels over genetically modified (GM) crops did not happen at the end of June, but a revolution by the European Council unexpectedly did.

For the first time ever the council of European environment ministers managed to come to a consensus on food biotechnology policy. Of the EU's 25 member countries, 22 voted against the commission's eight proposals to lift the ban on certain GM organisms across the entire region or, as the council phrased it, "rejected withdrawal of safeguard measures".

In effect, it was an affirmation of states' sovereignty. France, Luxembourg, Greece, Austria and Germany are now permitted to continue banning these crops on their soil, even though they are permitted in the rest of the joint market. It is going to cost a lot of money.

But let's take a broader look at the issue. The wording is essential to understanding what the conflict between the EU and the countries that allow GMO is all about. GMO proponents claim the end-product is what matters, that if there are no chemical differences between products that contain GMOs and those that do not, the production method is irrelevant. Opponents say the production method is the only relevant measure. Recombinant DNA is invasive/unnatural/insert-your-own-preferred-yuck-word-here and the long-term consequences to the ecosystem and the food chain are yet unknown.

On a practical level, the EU has tried to force food producers to treat GMO crops as identity preserved crops. This will increase the cost of harvest, storage and distribution for GMO crops, as well as force the crops into a distribution flow separate from non-identity preserved grains. This is done for some crops already, but it does increase the end-cost of those crops for the consumer.

Farmers, since day one, have not treated GMO crops as any different from other crops, and the GMO seed has become intermingled with non-GMO seed at grain elevators, on barges, and on freight ships. Farmers did not even know this would be an issue when the first GMO crops were planted in 1996. It will be a very costly affair to separate GMO crops from the seed flow, and there are no consumer benefits to show for it.

Interestingly, experimental studies measuring consumer behavior in EU grocery stores show that labeling does not change the purchasing decision of the consumer. Other studies have shown that the push for a GMO ban and labeling schemes in Europe comes almost entirely from nongovernmental organization activists and food retail chains. Most consumers in Europe do not care.

Labeling sounds like a reasonable measure; after all, it is only ink on paper. However, choosing what products to label as containing GMOs requires the source of the grain to be identifiable all the way through the food supply chain. Labeling requires identity preservation of GMO grain even after it has been processed to a point where the genetic modifications cannot be traced or measured anymore. GMO purity demands will increase the price of grain anywhere from about 9% (assuming a 1% GMO allowance in the final consumable product), to about 35% (with an 0.3% GMO allowance in the final consumable product). This, of course, will be passed on to the consumer.

The seed industry does not enjoy very wide profit margins, as several of the plant biotech giants learned the hard way when the biotech bubble burst. Studies have shown that seed purity demands will lead to significant structural changes in the seed business. The small and medium-sized seed producers who cannot afford to comply will slowly be pushed out of business, leaving the large companies still in business. That doesn't seem like a trend anti-corporation GMO-opponents should support.

In the nine years since the first RoundUp Ready soybeans were planted, the growth in GMO acreage across the world has been explosive. In 2004, 200 million acres of GMO crops were planted, about two-thirds of that in developing countries. The list includes most of the major grain-producing countries in the world.

The wide adaptation of GMO crops would imply that they should be considered the norm. The aforementioned study of European consumer behavior indicates identity preservation of non-GMO crops is the way to go. Let the minority who prefer non-GMO crops pay the extra money required to identity-preserve the grain, but don't shift the cost to consumers who don't give a hoot. Making food more expensive is bad social justice policy.


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