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.