Don't Pester Europe on Genetically Modified Food
Clyde V. Prestowitz Jr.
25 January 2003
New York Times
The Bush administration recently announced that it is considering
taking action against the European Union because of its ban on imports
of genetically modified foods. It's a profoundly bad idea.
As a former Reagan administration trade hawk, I take a back seat to no
one in demanding the opening of foreign markets. But in this case and
at this moment, we need to look hard at our priorities.
The ban on genetically modified food has been a sorely troublesome
issue for the United States and the European Union for a long time.
Without any scientific grounds, but on the basis of the so-called
precautionary principle - that is, if we can't prove absolutely that it
is harmless, let's ban it - the union has prevented genetically
modified food from the United States from entering its markets. This is
almost certainly a violation of World Trade Organization rules, which
don't recognize the precautionary principle. If the United States
follows through on its threat to file a case, it has a very good chance
of winning. But this is a situation in which we could easily win in
court but lose not only in the market, but also in the arena of our
American trade officials tend to see the issue purely as a matter of
European agricultural interests once again colluding and hiding behind
phony scientific worries to exclude competitive American products.
There is no doubt that there is an element of that in this case. But it
is by no means the major part of the problem. Whether rationally or
not, many, and perhaps most, Europeans are scared to death of
genetically modified food. And this is not entirely a matter of
Europeans' falling victim to protectionist propaganda or hysteria.
We must remember two things. One is that Europe has recently had some
very bad experiences with contaminated food. Health experts in the
1990's maintained that beef from cattle with mad cow disease was
perfectly safe - until scores of Britons died.
That experience was all the more searing because food is to European
culture what free speech is to American culture. There may be no good
scientific reason for concern, but to consider eating something that
has resulted from some laboratory manipulation is felt by many
Europeans as a kind of denial of the true self. For Americans to insist
that the Union accept genetically modified products is bound to be felt
in Europe as another exercise in American cultural and economic
We may win the case before the World Trade Organization, but that is
likely only to guarantee a hardening of resistance by consumers.
The administration will argue that it wants only to give the consumers
a choice. But as one who spent years selling to European supermarkets
and consumers, I can say with confidence that such a move by the United
States would very likely result in a European campaign against all
That brings us to the second main point. We have already caused great
resentment among our European allies by rejecting the Kyoto Protocol on
global warming and the International Criminal Court, both of which were
championed by the European Union. Given that we will want European
support for whatever actions we eventually decide to take in the
Persian Gulf or in North Korea, is this really the time to mount what
is bound to be a bitter, high-profile case in order to sell genetically
It is, indeed, appalling that some countries would rather starve than
accept donations of genetically modified corn. But trying to force
genetically modified food down European throats is the surest way to
guarantee that they swallow neither the potatoes nor a lot of other
more important American proposals.
Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute, is
author of the forthcoming "Rogue Nation: The Unintended Consequences of
America's Good Intentions."