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WTO Bows to Science, Rejects Politics & Protectionism PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Dittmer   
Tuesday, 07 February 2006
AFF Sentinel Vol.3, #3

If there is one thing we've observed despite the globalization of trade, it's that the old game of politics still too often trumps science or economics.  And politics usually lags behind change and innovation in either science or the marketplace, often creating a confusing, dark cloud for farmers and ranchers around the globe.

This cloud is particularly evident in that supposed society of enlightenment known as Europe or the EU.  It seems that its trade policy draws much more from its emotional and artistic side than from its science and rational thought.  A World Trade Organization (WTO) interim report issued Tuesday looks like a silver lining behind this cloud.  The report held that the EU and six member states broke trade rules, in effect barring genetically modified crops.

We have organizations like the WTO to substitute agreed-upon rules - incorporating science and stable procedures - for emotional, political decisions.  Free and fair trade would benefit the largest number of nations overall in the long run.

But in the ?80s, the beef industry relearned about politics and non-tariff trade barriers.  The EU decided to keep U.S. beef out of the competitive mix in Europe by banning beef from animals on which growth promotants had been used.  Never mind that the science showed there was no problem or that many of the growth promotants were sold by European companies.

Regardless of science or favorable WTO rulings, over 20 years later we still can't ship most U.S. beef into the EC.  In the late ?90s, the EU figured they'd use the same tactic on genetically modified (GM) crops.  This time, they didn't always ban them outright but set up approval procedures for the new GM crops - and then "forgot" about most of the applications and went into a bureaucratic stall.  After five years of promises that they'd get around to evaluating key crop products "soon," several major crop producers and exporters lost patience and filed a complaint with the WTO.  Canada, Argentina and the U.S. charged that if the EU set up approval processes, then it should go about processing applications, not just take the apps and throw away the key.  The WTO apparently agrees.

After two years of evaluating the claims, the WTO has finally issued a preliminary report.  An official who has seen it indicated that the WTO report confirmed the EU had, in effect, instituted a moratorium on GM applications.  Such moratoriums are not allowed under WTO rules.  And there have been no scientific objections raised by any internationally recognized scientific body - including the EC's own - that there were any food safety or environmental problems with GM crops. 

The political foot dragging has mainly been a reaction to European "green" activist groups and other special interest groups who have been uttering panicked cries of "There might, there might, there might ... be a danger here!"  They have not offered any proof, scientific or otherwise, just an unhealthy fear of the negative they can't prove or see or taste.

Meanwhile, the world's farmers have tested and are increasingly adopting varieties of seeds that deliver insect resistance, pesticide and herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, better yields, lower costs and more income.  Whether they're running a huge combine in Illinois or a hoe in some developing country, farmers can figure this stuff out pretty quickly.

Last year, over eight millions farmers in 17 countries planted over 200 million acres with GM seed, a 20-percent increase over 2004.  Corn and maize, soybeans, potatoes, rape and cotton are some of the crops.  Naturally, the U.S. and Canada got on the stick early, but Argentina and Brazil are now significant producers.  By 2003, 20 to 40 percent of Brazil's soybean crop was GM.  Farmers in EU countries like France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Denmark are now planting some GM crops.

There are some fascinating ironies here.  The "green" zealots who oppose GM crops are the same ones opposing pesticides and herbicides, while GM crops allow farmers to eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.  In fact, the introduction of biotechnology in agriculture has resulted in significantly more reductions in pesticide use than the higher-priced, lower -yielding organic alternative promoted by these activists.

Some European elites claim concern for feeding the poor of developing countries while simultaneously opposing GM crops - the GM crops that reduce the likelihood of crop failures and famine from crop disease or insects.  And the EU politicians listened to their illogic rather than their own scientists.

Poor farmers in famine-plagued developing nations need these technologies more than anyone.  Some 90 percent of the farmers using biotech seeds around the world - some 7.4 million - are resource-poor farmers in developing countries, according to the U.S. trade representative.  This ruling is good news for these and other food producers.

At first, European farmers sat back and accepted the de facto protection from competition.  But few farmers are going to sit back very long and give up protection from insects and diseases or pass up cost savings and bigger yields for no good reason.

Exactly how the EU will react to the WTO's ruling remains to be seen.  EU politicians could appeal aspects of the decision they don't like and continue with their tactics of delay.  Or, they could start running their approval processes like a government instead of a black hole.  If they ignore the ruling, under WTO rules, the EU will owe millions if not billions of dollars to the U.S., Canada and Argentina in return for lost trade.

They could just decide to accept science and tell their scare mongering special interest groups and overwrought constituents that they have nothing to fear.

But at least there is some hope for America's farmers, ranchers, researchers and supplier companies that science and innovation are not forever going to be given that haughty European reaction of "unacceptable."  After all, the new plant genetics produced by biotechnology are some of the most closely regulated examples of progress.  Governments have set up the regulatory requirements, from both environmental and human safety aspects, and found no fault.

Meanwhile the hysteria from the special interest groups is typical "green," anti-technology philosophy: keep the poor and hungry dependent on handouts from big government; paint the United States as a marketing bully; play up fear of innovation and science; and badmouth U.S. food companies.

This WTO ruling appears to be one step toward preserving choices and options for both agriculture and consumers worldwide.  Continuing to allow irrational fears to go unchecked, and protectionism and politics to substitute for sound science and free trade and innovation, would be a step backwards for everyone.

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