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
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
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
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
- 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.”
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,
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
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
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
© 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 AGuebert@worldnet.att.net.