Organic Consumers Association

Bush Bullying on Biotech Backfires in Europe

Bush's evangelising about food chills European hearts

The fight over GM crops exposes the weaknesses of globalisation, says
Jeremy Rifkin

Monday June 2, 2003

The Guardian

In case you thought that the Bush administration's rift with its
European allies ended with the Iraqi military campaign, think again. The
White House has now set its sights on something far more personal - the
question of what kind of food Europeans should put on their table.
President Bush has charged that the EU's ban on genetically modified
food is discouraging developing countries from growing GM crops for
export and resulting in increased hunger and poverty in the world's
poorest nations. His remarks, made just days before the G8 meeting in
Evian, have further chilled US-European relations.

Last month, the US government launched a formal legal challenge at the
World Trade Organisation to force the EU to lift its "de facto
moratorium" on the sale of GM seeds and food in Europe. The EU has
countered that there is no moratorium in place and points out that in
the past year it has approved two applications for imports of GM seeds.
Regardless, the new thrust by President Bush is likely to force another
confrontation between the two superpowers - one whose long-term impact
could be even more serious than the breach over Iraq.

For most Europeans, GM food is anathema. Although Europeans are worried
about the potentially harmful environmental and health consequences,
they are equally concerned about the cultural consequences. While
Americans long ago accepted a corporate-driven fast food culture, in
Europe food and culture are deeply entwined. Every region boasts its own
culinary traditions and touts its local produce.

In a world of globalising forces, increasingly controlled by corporate
behemoths and bureaucratic regulatory regimes, the last vestige of
cultural identity most Europeans feel they have some control over is
their choice of food. That is why every public opinion poll conducted in
Europe, including polls in the new candidate EU countries, show
overwhelming public disapproval of GM food.

Global food companies doing business in Europe, such as McDonald's,
Burger King and Coca-Cola, have responded to the public's aversion by
promising to keep their products free of genetically modified traits. By
forcing the issue, the Bush administration is stirring up a hornet's
nest of public anger and resentment.

The White House has made a bad situation worse by suggesting that
European opposition to GM food is tantamount to imposing a death
sentence on millions of starving people in the third world. Denying poor
farmers in developing countries a European market for GM food, says the
White House, gives them no choice but to grow non-GM food and lose the
commercial advantages that go hand-in-hand with GM food crops. President
Bush's remarks on the many benefits of GM food appear more like a public
relations release than a reasoned political argument.

Hunger in the third world is a complex phenomenon not likely to be
reversed by the introduction of GM crops. First, 80% of undernourished
children in the developing world live in countries with food surpluses.
The hunger problem has more to do with the wayarable land is utilised.

Today, 21% of the food grown in the developing world is destined for
animal consumption. In many developing countries, more than a third of
the grain is now being grown for livestock. The animals, in turn, will
be eaten by the world's wealthiest consumers in the northern industrial
countries. The result is that the world's richest consumers eat a diet
high in animal protein, while the poorest people on earth are left with
little land to grow food grain for their own families. And, even the
land that is available is often owned by global agribusiness interests,
further aggravating the plight of the rural poor. The introduction of GM
food crops does nothing to change this fundamental reality.

Second, President Bush talks about the cost savings of planting GM food
crops. What he conveniently ignores is that GM seeds are more expensive
than conventional seeds and, because they are patented, farmers cannot
save the new seeds for planting during the next growing season because
those seeds belong to the biotech companies. By exercising intellectual
property control over the genetic traits of the world's major food
crops, companies such as Monsanto stand to make huge profits while the
world's poorest farmers become increasingly marginalised.

Third, the White House alludes to the new generation of crops with genes
whose proteins will produce vaccines, drugs and even industrial
chemicals. The Bush administration cites the example of "golden rice", a
new genetically engineered rice strain that contains an inserted gene
that produces beta-carotene. Noting that half a million poor children
around the world suffer from vitamin A deficiency and become blind, the
US trade representative Robert Zoellick argues that to deny them this
valuable food source would be immoral. The biotech industry has been
singing the praises of the "miracle" rice for years, despite articles in
scientific journals that say it simply doesn't work. To convert
beta-carotene into vitamin A the body requires sufficient body protein
and fat. Undernourished children lack the body protein necessary for the

What is equally galling to Europeans is President Bush's moralising
style. When the president said that "European governments should join -
not hinder - the great cause of ending hunger in Africa", many European
leaders were incensed. EU countries spend a larger percentage of their
gross national income on foreign aid than the US. The US currently ranks
22nd in the percentage of its gross national income devoted to foreign
aid - the lowest of any industrial nation.

Bush's misguided plan to force Europeans to accept GM food is likely to
backfire. Indeed, it may well turn out to be the straw that breaks the
camel's back for European-US relations. The battle over GM food is
uniting the European public and giving people a new sense of their
common European identity, while distancing them even further from their
old ally across the Atlantic.

The struggle over GM food may also further diminish the already weakened
status of the WTO. Even if the organisation eventually sides with the US
and forces the EU to introduce GM food, the victory is likely to be
pyrrhic because any WTO order to accept GM food is going to have no
effect on European farmers, consumers and the food industry.

US strong-arming cannot make Europeans eat GM food. A European GM food
boycott will only expose the underlying weakness of globalisation and
the existing trade protocols that accompany it. In the unfolding
struggle between global commercial power and local cultural resistance,
the GM food fight might turn out to be the test case that forces us to
rethink the very basis of the globalisation process.

Jeremy Rifkin is author of The Biotech Century and president of the
Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC.

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