WASHINGTON — While Washington is obsessed with the prospect of invading Iraq, a less frightening - but economically and politically costly - battle is shaping up between the US and Europe. In the next few weeks, the White House is due to decide whether to take legal action against the European Union (EU) in the World Trade Organization (WTO) over agricultural biotechnology.
The issue is genetically modified (GM) food. In the US, genetic engineering is used to grow more food using less labor, tilling, and pesticides. Sixty percent of the world's soybeans and 20 percent of its corn are GM crops, grown mostly in the US and Argentina.
The European public calls GM products "Frankenstein food." They're afraid it could pose a health threat, or create an environmental disaster where genes jump from GM crops to wild plants and reduce biodiversity or create superweeds. For four years, Europe has held up new approvals of US exports of "Frankenfood." Europe's parliament voted in July to require extensive labeling and traceability of food containing genetically modified organisms - even if no remnants of genetic modification are detectable.
The Washington rumor mill contends that US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick will file a WTO case against Europe in early 2003 - even though the Europeans have agreed to no immediate retaliation on US steel protections and foreign corporate tax credits. Bets are that a WTO case will ignite a trade war - jeopardizing $16.6 billion annually in US-European agricultural trade, endangering efforts to liberalize world trade, and further straining relations with European allies.
The US has a real grievance. With European public confidence in food safety badly shaken by foot-and-mouth and mad- cow disease, no new GM products have been authorized for use in Europe since 1998. European Union officials admit this is likely illegal under WTO rules and hurts largely US farm exporters. In an effort to restart the approval process by addressing public concerns over consumer choice and environmental protection, the EU in 2001 proposed burdensome new rules for biotech food and animal feed labeling and for "farm-to-fork" traceability measures on products.
Mr. Zoellick says these labeling and traceability proposals go "far beyond health protections for consumers" and create "onerous and impractical regulatory barriers." The US position is that GM food is safe. It cleared all regulatory hurdles set by the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture, and international health and safety bodies.
Even Zoellick's European counterpart, Pascal Lamy, concedes that European research suggests GM foods present little risk. Given that polls show 95 percent of Europe's consumers are wary of GM food and strongly favor labeling, it's certain the EU wouldn't implement a WTO decision favoring the US. The US could retaliate, but it could backfire.
A WTO case would play into the hands of European environmental organizations, consumer groups, and politicians who portray the US as the world's fast-food superpower trying to force an unwelcome technology down European throats. It also would be a setback for European scientists and leaders working for a more reasoned public debate over biotechnology.
The crux of the problem is that in a free world economy where the consumer is king, Europe's consumers don't want GM food. It's possible this problem can be surmounted, but it largely must be done by Europeans themselves. A WTO case by the US would only make a bad situation worse.
• Julia A. Moore is public policy scholar at the Wilson Center in Washington. Gilbert Winham is the Eric Dennis memorial professor of government and political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Novia Scotia.