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International Herald Tribune
June 13, 2003

Genetically Modified Morals

A Global Food Fight

by Kathleen McAfee

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut -- The dispute over whether countries may
decline imports of genetically engineered seeds and foods, long a
point of contention between the United States and developing
countries, is straining relations between America and Europe as well.

The battle reflects an intensifying struggle between
government-backed U.S. agribusiness and farmers worldwide. It is
often portrayed as a debate about science, but also at stake are
issues of environmental risk and economic and cultural sovereignty.
Will countries and farmers in a globalized economy retain any choice
over what they eat, what they produce and what kind of agriculture
systems they employ?

Present European Union policies restrict imports of genetically
modified food and the release of genetically engineered living
organisms into the environment. Revisions under discussion would
allow modified imports, but require that they be labeled as such.

In Europe, where agricultural landscapes and local products are
highly valued, experience with mad cow disease has heightened
distrust of large-scale, industrialized farming. U.S. officials
contend that such attitudes are irrational and that EU regulations
are not based on scientific evidence.

On May 13, to the dismay of diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic,
the United States announced that it will file a complaint against the
EU moratorium that has kept genetically modified food off store
shelves in Europe. A week later, President George W. Bush accused the
EU of contributing to hunger in Africa by blocking imports from the
United States of "high-yield bio-crops," which he called "more
productive." The U.S. trade representative, Robert Zoellick, has
called the EU policies "Luddite," "immoral," and an unfair trade
practice harmful to America.

U.S. officials charge that current European attitudes force
developing countries that want to export to Europe to adopt policies
that are against the interests of their own peoples, as when southern
African governments rejected famine relief in the form of American
genetically modified corn late last year.

Actually, few African exports to Europe would be affected by current
EU rules. When they declined U.S. genetically modified food aid,
southern African governments had other concerns. One was the possible
health risk of consuming unprocessed modified corn, which is not a
major part of U.S. diets. The other was the unknown consequences of
releasing modified corn into ecosystems in southern Africa, where
corn is the main staple grain.

Until these concerns could be addressed, African governments asked
the United States to follow World Food Program guidelines by
providing funds to purchase locally preferred and appropriate foods,
as other donor countries did.

The U.S. argument that such policies are "immoral" takes as a given
that modified crops have been proven to be free of health or
environmental hazards. It also presumes that modified crops would
reduce African hunger because they yield more than conventional
varieties.

In fact, average yields from currently available modified food-crop
seeds are slightly lower than yields of comparable nonmodified
varieties. This is not surprising, because modified crops have been
designed mainly to deal with pest problems, not to produce more food.
Crop genetic engineering is a long way from developing varieties that
could produce more food under African conditions.

Meanwhile, transnational companies that have patented much of the
current genetic-engineering technology - as well as genes - have
little incentive to invest in developing crops for countries where
farmers are too poor to buy premium seeds and agrochemicals.

In any case, lack of quality crop varieties is not the major obstacle
to African food production; the bigger problems in Africa are poor
roads and storage facilities, lack of credit and fertilizer, degraded
soils, labor shortages and farm prices depressed by imports of cheap
food from the United States and Europe, where agriculture is heavily
subsidized.

In addition, the question of environmental risk is proving more
vexing than enthusiasts of genetic modification first thought. Some
scientists worry that synthetic genes and their products may
contribute to the loss of vital maize genetic diversity, or that they
may damage soil microbes and other organisms that keep
agro-ecosystems productive.

Until such ecological problems have been solved, countries may
reasonably prefer not to accept genetically modified seeds. The U.S.
Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Agency for International
Development and the trade representative's office have nonetheless
made the promotion of genetically modified crops a policy priority.
The United States has fought hard against the Cartagena Protocol on
Biosafety, a global treaty that will give countries the option to
decline genetically modified seed imports if they are shown to pose
ecological or socioeconomic risks.

Promoters of U.S. farm exports argue that low-income countries that
are losing their food self-sufficiency as markets become global are
actually better off because their farming systems are inefficient.

But flooding world markets with the products of U.S. agriculture
creates dangerous patterns of dependence, puts farmers in developing
countries out of business, undermines rural communities and rarely
helps the hungry. Until the United States is prepared to offer Africa
what it really needs to overcome famine - support for infrastructure,
inputs, marketing, fair pricing, and farmer-centered research on
sustainable farm management and local crop improvement - it should
stop lecturing anyone about morality.

The writer is an assistant professor of geography and sustainable
development at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

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