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(1/27/2003 - Prestowitz) Don't Make Europe Gag

Don't Make Europe Gag
By Clyde Prestowitz
27 January 2003
International Herald Tribune
Kitchen Genes

WASHINGTON 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, Washington needs to look hard at its 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 EU 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 the United States could easily win in court but lose not only in the market but also in the arena of its broader interests.

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 1990s 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 EU accept genetically modified products is bound to be felt in Europe as another exercise in American cultural and economic imperialism. Washington might win the case before the World Trade Organization, but that would be likely only to guarantee a hardening of resistance by consumers.

The Bush 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 American food.

That brings us to the second main point. America has already caused great resentment among its 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 Washington will want European support for whatever actions it eventually decides to take in the Gulf region or in North Korea, is this really the time to mount what is bound to be a bitter, high-profile case in order to try to sell genetically modified potatoes?

It is indeed appalling that Zambia 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.

The writer is president of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of the forthcoming book "Rogue Nation: The Unintended Consequences of America's Good Intentions."

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