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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, August 2005 by Lene Johansen.
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
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 behaviour in EU
grocery stores show that labelling does not change the purchasing decision
of the consumer. Other studies have shown that the push for a GMO ban and
labelling schemes in Europe comes almost entirely from nongovernmental
organization activists and food retail chains. Most consumers in Europe do
Labelling 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
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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