TCS Daily

Hard to Swallow

By Lene Johansen - February 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Environmentalists in Europe have reacted with predictable outrage to the news that the World Trade Organization this week ruled in favor of the US in the dispute over genetically modified (GM) crops, and despite losing the EU has steadfastly defended its protectionist practices. In the weeks leading up to the decision, green groups around Europe mobilized. Friends of the Earth reached out to its various national counterparts to prepare them to react quickly. Their press releases regurgitate translations of what Friends of the Earth in Washington, D.C. issued on the ruling. The gist of the statement is:

1. The WTO is not a democratic organization.
2. The WTO should not decree what consumers have to buy.
3. The WTO has no understanding of GMO.
4. International institutions should regulate GMO.
5. Scientists agree that GMO are dangerous for human health and the environment.
6. The precautionary principle should be the basis of the regulation.

The arguments are the same the greens deploy every time an international organization issues statements against their wishes. What they don't realize is that the WTO is no less democratic than, say, the UN. But since the foundation for the UN's regulatory regime on GMO is the precautionary principle in the Cartagena Protocol for biosafety, the UN is more democratic according to our green friends.

The WTO does not decree what consumers have to buy; the ruling simply ensures that consumers get to choose what products to buy. The EU ban was an efficient way of making sure consumers did not have GMO as an option. Personally, I would prefer to eat canned corn containing BT corn, because it has a lower level of carcinogenic fungus than the non-BT variety. The greens want to take this choice away from European consumers.

The job of the WTO is not to decide what is safe, either for the environment or people's health. There is no regulatory regime in the world that is stupid enough to decree that something is safe. This is because nothing is completely safe; every human action has a certain level of risk connected to it. The question is how risky. Like anything else, GMO can be very risky or not risky at all. GMO can even be less risky than traditionally bred crops in certain instances, because recombinant gene technology is more accurate than other breeding techniques, such as wide cross breeding and mutation radiation breeding.

The scientific community has held a consensus on the risks connected to GMO since Mary-Dell Chilton presented the first recombinant petunia at the Miami Winter Symposium on Molecular Genetics of Plants and Animals in 1983. The scientific organizations that have endorsed this breeding technique as responsible and sustainable include the National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, and the Royal Society. UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and NATO.

Besides, it is not the job of the WTO to overrule national governments on risk evaluation unless the national governments use those evaluations as trade barriers. In this case, the EU is trying to protect its spoiled and over-subsidized agricultural sector from cheaper grains from the U.S., South America, and Asia.

What the greens conveniently forget in their statements is that WTO is an international organization. Most of the world's nations have chosen to become members and ratify the WTO protocols. The diplomats who work there are emissaries of their national governments. Reframing the organization in press releases will not change the reality.

The greens might wish that there were just one protocol, just one organization, which they had to lobby to force their reactionary biotechnology policy down our throats. It would be so much easier for them to pool their resources that way. Luckily for those of us who embrace national sovereignty, democracy, and technological progress, the governments of this world has not been able to create a consensus to this effect.

The greens say the precautionary principle should be the basis of GMO policies internationally. It is a simple and comforting way of looking at risk for people who cannot be bothered to follow the scientific debate on GMO, or deduce the logical economic and social consequences of stopping this technology. Because there is no amount of scientific evidence that will be sufficient to prove that GMOs are safe, because safe is not provable, this principle leads to inaction. It is a stop sign for progress and development.

The greens will never be satisfied with any decision to accept GMO; no amount of evidence will convince them that they are wrong. Time is on the side of reason, however. As Max Planck said, innovations rarely succeed by gradually winning over and converting their opponents. Rather, the opponents die out and the succeeding generation is familiarized with the idea from the beginning.

The author is Director of U.S. Operations for the Swedish think tank, Eudoxa. She can be reached at


1 Comment

To your average liberal, the only "fair" election, is one that they win.

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