On his recent trip to Europe our intrepid ag reporter found lots of support for GMO labelling -- and everyone was willing to discuss the issue ... except our own representatives from USDA and the State department.

By Alan Guebert, October 25, 2002

Editor's NOTE

Alan Guebert's column, The Final Word, will appear each Friday on The New Farm® web site, starting this Friday November 1. But we rushed this column onto the web site in advance of our launch date because it addresses an issue critical to US corn and soybean growers -- and a scary unwillness on the part of the US government to face the facts.

Alan Guebert is a professional freelance agricultural journalist from Delavan, IL. He brings 22 years’ experience to his weekly investigations, reflections and analysis of events that shape the ability of farmers to farm profitably and independently. Click here for more information on Alan.

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1. If it's tuesday, this must be Brussels

From Oct. 12 through Oct. 20, nine American agricultural and business journalists made hit-and-run visits to Brussels, Rennes, the capital of France’s Brittany province, and Berlin to interview more than 80 European Union and national officials, farm leaders, farmers and environmentalists on European attitudes toward genetically modified crops and food and proposals to reform the costly EU ag policy.

The trip was organized and underwritten by the non-profit German Marshall Fund of the United States. The Fund opened doors few American journalists could find, let alone enter, in an effort to “stimulate the exchange of ideas and promote cooperation between the United States and Europe.”

As one of the nine on the tour-de-words, I can’t say if we Americans stimulated anyone or promoted anything, but we received our fair share of both--particularly on the GMO front.

From the week’s initial interview in Brussels, the home of the European Union, to the final visit with a large-sized farmer 100 miles north of Berlin, the repeated -- and repeated and repeated -- message from those interviewed was simple and clear: The 15-nation EU soon will impose GMO labeling and traceability rules on all food.

Presently, the European Parliament has approved an initial bill to establish a microscopic 0.5 percent threshold for GMO labeling. That mean if a food or food product contains 0.5 percent GMO material, it must be labeled “GMO.”

Other labeling proponents differ on the threshold. Environmental groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth press for a zero threshold, a de facto ban on GMOs EU-wide. Their leaders, however, offer a 0.1 percent standard as a compromise. EU bureaucrats foresee a 1 percent threshold.

Whatever the final number, all food products sold in Europe, including livestock products like eggs, meat and milk produced with GMO feed, as well as food with direct links to GMO crops like soy cooking oil, will carry a label stating “This product contains genetically modified organisms” by as early as 2004.

Labeling opponents complain the phrase will unfairly mark the food as tainted, unsafe and to be avoided. Not so, retort labeling supporters, the phrase’s sole purpose is to offer consumers choice.

Only two players in the week-long, EU-wide opera sang discordant notes -- the U.S government and biotech company representatives. American officials, who spoke only on condition of anonymity (more on that below) asserted EU labeling would be a clear violation of World Trade Organization rules. As such, they strongly hinted the U.S. would take the EU into a WTO fight if labeling becomes law.

For their part, biotech and grain company officials parroted the U.S. government line: GMOs are safe, European farmers want them, we should go to all lengths to preserve the right to sell GMO seed and imported GMO grain in the EU.

The problem with those arguments is that few Europeans seem to be listening; the American government and GMO advocates are mostly talking to each other.

A short, out-of-school story describes what I mean. At an informal luncheon sponsored by representatives of European and American GMO heavy hitters in Brussels, one journalist asked the biotech hosts if they and their firms had made mistakes in pushing GMOs into an unready Europe in the late 1990s.

Well, hemmed a couple of GMO reps, mistakes probably were made that cost us public trust then and now is costing us hoped-for markets. (They never mentioned the trade losses American farmers now take in Europe for those errors.)

Given that confession, continued the journalist, what now would you do differently if it was 1997 and you could start over?

The roomful of GMO reps looked at each other, then at the room’s ornate ceiling, then at the tasseled loafers on their feet trying to locate an answer. They never found one. The silence was shattering.

And it spoke volumes. GMO companies have yet to get the message that European GMO labeling will soon be a reality and American farmers have yet to get the message that they may soon lose even more European markets.

2. In their own words

Throughout the European sojourn, people we interviewed offered straight talk on GMO labeling. Below is a selection of what was said and by whom.

  • Beate Gminder, spokeswomen for the European Commission’s Consumer Protection and Health Agency: “Europeans are very concerned about GMOs in food. A recent poll shows 70.9 percent don’t want to eat GMOs; 80 percent don’t support GMOs in agriculture; 85 percent want more information on GMOs before eating food; 11 percent say they have enough information to make (food purchasing) choices today and 94.5 percent want the ‘right to know’ if GMOs are in the food.”
  • Joseph Menard, president, Regionale des Syndicats d’Expoitants Agricole, the largest farmer organization in the French province of Brittany: “For the moment, GM is not used in Brittany’s field crops. Farmers aren’t closed-minded; if GM solves problems, maybe we’ll use it. But the consumers are the final word. If they don’t want it, there is little farmers can do.”
  • Isabelle Garzon, Cabinet member of EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy: “If the U.S. Administration continues to push (GMOs) in Europe, they will give EU consumers more reason to be angry at the U.S. over this issue ... Two or three years ago, the EU was more pro- than anti-GMO. Now it’s just the reverse.”
  • Dietrick Klein, German Farmers Assoc., an umbrella organization that represents 90 percent of all German farmers: “German farmers don’t fear (food) labeling because it is the only way to get (GMO) technology into EU. This negative (labeling) can turn into a positive for farmers ... Farmers here could use GMOs because EU agriculture is intensive; we make much more use of technology than America where agriculture is more extensive. You have more land.”
  • Jean Paul Simier, head of economics, Regional Agriculture Council of Brittany: “Tomorrow does everyone around the world have to eat the same thing or does every country have the chance to keep its own food culture? In France, this is an important question and one that will be difficult to answer.”

3. Silent Americans

From the moment my journalism companions and I landed in Brussels to the second we boarded a homeward jet in Berlin, every conversation with every public official, non-governmental organization, farm leader and farmer was an on-the-record, go-ahead-and-quote-me interview.

Every one, that is, except two -- the two interviews we had with American State Dept. and USDA officials. Neither interview was on the record and no public official would allow themselves to be quoted.

While most journalists loath off-the-record or background interviews, some (and I am one of the some) occasionally do enter into non-quotable discussions with sources for two reasons. First, there must be no other way to get information crucial for the reader to understand the story and, second, to protect the source from retribution.

The textbook example of going off-the-record would be a government or corporate whistleblower that has both vital information of wrongdoing and a fear of revenge if his identity became known.

Indeed, going “on background” should be so rare an event that most newspapers have a policy forbidding it. Today, however, many government officials often ask “We’re on background, right?” before the interview even begins.

This is wrong for several reasons. First, public officials possess public information. That means they have a no-exceptions duty to relate it when asked. Second, going on background creates suspicion. What’s the official want to hide by going off-the-record? And third, citizens have a right to know what their government knows. No exceptions here, also.

Lest anyone worry that this always-on-the-record approach may endanger the official or the nation, fear not. If in an interview the public official worries about his or the nation’s safety, his simple, immediate answer should be, “No comment.” It’s done everyday and journalists live with the reply everyday.

Essentially, public officials carry the burden of always being on-the-record, not the journalist and not the public.

Why? Because democracy functions best when all its participants have all the available facts. That’s the reason America’s Founding Fathers named the public’s right to know --freedom of the press -- as one of five necessary freedoms in our Constitution’s First Amendment.

Incidentally, I will not be breaking any confidences or journalistic ethic if I offer my take on why the U.S. officials we met in Europe asked to be off-the-record: Under the banner of free trade, they are pushing GMOs on a skeptical, reluctant European public more forcefully than the biotech companies.

In short, our government is Monsanto and DuPont’s biggest salesman in Europe. And it is doing a lousy job, to boot.

© 2002 ag comm

The Final Word comes to you each Friday by special arrangement. Alan Guebert's regular column, the Farm and Food File, is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers around the US and Canada. Contact him at