D.C., April 19, 2004 -- via CropChoice news:
The food industry is bracing for new European labeling
and tracking rules that could knock down export barriers
to genetically modified food but at the cost of changes
in food-production and farming.
Fear of the new rules - which take effect Sunday -
is so widespread that leading American farm and food
groups are pressing the government to challenge their
validity in the World Trade Organization.
The stakes are especially high in St. Louis, headquarters
of the American Soybean Association, the National Corn
Growers Association and Monsanto Co., the world leader
in plant biotechnology.
The European rules represent a stark divergence from
practices in the United States, where the government
and industry have fought to prevent labeling genetically
modified products along with requirements to track their
But in return for abiding by their rules, the Europeans
are promising to lift a moratorium on approvals of many
new, American-bred biotech products that were banned
six years ago.
That would be hugely welcome news for Monsanto and
its rivals in the biotechnology industry were it not
for concern about the looming rules for labeling.
They require European retailers to inform consumers
if even a tiny portion (0.9 percent) of their food has
ingredients that come from genetically modified plants.
Even sacks of engineered grain fed to animals in Europe
must bear labels.
In order to avoid the stigma of labels, food companies
could choose to reformulate products to assure that
they contain no genetically engineered ingredients whatsoever.
That would be especially troublesome to the soybean
farmers in the United States, where the crop is now
more than 80 percent genetically modified. Soybeans
are used in a wide variety of processed foods but companies
might substitute palm oil or the equivalent for soybean
American soybean farmers already have lost one-quarter
of their European market - valued at more than $200
million - in two years in part because of the furor
David Hegwood, trade adviser in the U.S. Agriculture
Department, said he worries that some food companies
may simply choose to relocate in Europe to avoid burdensome
"We think this is a lousy way to accomplish what
they are trying to accomplish," he said.
The loss of markets is just one of the worries.
Accompanying the labeling rules are new documentation
requirements for genetically modified products that
will require record keeping from farms to grocery shelves.
American farmers hoping to export engineered corn will
need to keep track for five years of which seeds were
planted in what field. Similar records will need to
be maintained at grain elevators and by rail, trucking
and barge lines as grain makes its way across the ocean.
The prospect of all that paperwork is daunting, said
Hayden Milberg, the director of public policy for the
National Corn Growers Association in Washington.
"The U.S. grain-handling system is just not set
up for this level of traceability. Such a system would
be extremely expensive," he said.
The issue takes on even bigger significance because
much of the world looks to Europe for leadership in
matters of food safety.
Since Europe's initial labeling regime was imposed
five years ago, some three dozen countries representing
20 of the top 25 American export markets have adopted
a labeling system, according to industry calculations.
In other words, rules written for the 15-country European
Union - soon to grow to 25 countries - could have an
impact far beyond the European continent.
"These rules are important for the entire global
economy," said Karil Kochenderfer, director of
international trade for the Grocery Manufacturers of
America, the world's largest food association.
"These products are safe by every scientific measurement,
but they are being treated like hazardous waste. If
we don't have the objectivity of science, what do we
rely on?" she asked.
Tony Van der Haegen, a European Union official in Washington,
argued that the traceability requirements are becoming
common throughout the world as a means to prevent bioterrorism
and attacks on computer systems.
He asserted that the United States ought to understand
that there are views about food in the world other than
those held by Americans.
"The problem of the United States is that it works
under the motto that what is good for Americans is good
for the world. That is wrong, and that is why the U.S.
is losing big chunks of its export markets," he
It didn't take long after the first shipments of Monsanto's
Roundup Ready soybeans arrived in Europe in 1996 for
a backlash to begin.
Europeans long have paid more attention than Americans
have to food, its sources and its presentation. In the
1990s, the continent had been shaken by a serious epidemic
of mad cow disease, which produced spongelike holes
in the brain of animals and began afflicting humans.
Despite a loss of faith in the continent's regulatory
apparatus, Monsanto did little to prepare the European
public for newly constituted food, leading to the 1998
de facto embargo that remains in effect today.
Europe's new labeling rules were devised as a strategy
to give consumers a choice and to tamp down concerns
about the safety of genetically modified food and its
impact on the environment. Greenpeace activists are
planning to fan out to European supermarkets to warn
people about products carrying the new labels.
Despite opposition, Van der Haegen predicted that by
early June, Europe will approve two biotech corn products
- one a Monsanto variety - which he interpreted as lifting
the moratorium that has plagued the industry and cost
American corn farmers more than $1 billion in lost exports.
Tom McDermott, Monsanto's spokesman in Brussels, said
he is hopeful that the Europeans will live up to their
promise to end the moratorium that is blocking the approval
of about a dozen Monsanto products both for import and
But McDermott said that Monsanto, like many others,
is wary of the new labeling rules.
"Besides requiring a lot of record keeping and
extra work by the people who handle these products,
it will be very difficult to enforce and open the door
to confusion, possibly even to consumer fraud. People
might not represent truthfully what they have,"
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade
Watch in Washington and the author of a newly released
book on the World Trade Organization, sounded amused
by the fretting.
"The industry has its knickers in a colossal knot
about the most basic of market freedoms - the consumer's
right to know. It strikes me that there's more going
on here than worry about the cost of regulation. It
has to do with the fear of what consumers will do if
fully informed," she said.
Signs of change
In November, 22 organizations representing much of
the American food and farm industry requested that the
U.S. trade representative begin formal proceedings in
the World Trade Organization against the new rule, similar
to the challenge to the European Union moratorium last
If the World Trade Organization found that the new
rules unfairly restrained trade, Europe could be harshly
As of last week, the U.S. trade office had made no
decision on challenging the rules, and officials there
did not respond to requests for comment. Government
officials have expressed fears in recent months of what
they call a growing "Europe-ization" of world
attitudes against genetically modified food.
But a U.S. official who monitors biotech issues said
last week he believes that the anti-biotech sentiments
that gave rise to the new rules are increasingly being
questioned in developing countries.
Peter Chase, a State Department official who returned
recently from a U.N. global biotechnology forum in Chile,
said he detected rising resentment toward European-induced
obstacles to agriculture biotechnology.
"Many people feel that the pendulum has swung
too far and that some of the questions that the Europeans
keep asking aren't relevant to them," he said.