In the next few weeks, U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick is expected to decide whether to file a case at the World Trade Organization against long-standing European restrictions on importing genetically modified corn and soybeans. For years, the European Union has dragged its feet on lifting these barriers, despite U.S. complaints. The Bush administration is under growing pressure from U.S. agribusiness to take action against such European protectionism-if only to discourage other countries from following the European lead-and American lawyers think they have a slam-dunk case.
But Zoellick should be wary of pursuing a Pyrrhic victory at the WTO. A judgment against the European Union may be politically unenforceable given the strong public opposition in Europe to genetically modified foods. The timing of such a case would also entangle this inflammatory dispute in other, more-pressing trans-Atlantic controversies, such as the impending war with Iraq. And the administration should not forget how its decision earlier this year to impose tariffs on steel imports was a public-relations disaster in Europe. Green parties in Europe would undoubtedly seize on a case involving genetically modified food to conjure up anti-American images of U.S. multinationals
force-feeding European consumers with "Frankenstein foods." Zoellick would do well to hold his fire. There is more at stake here than trade. Give the European Union time to see whether its new approval guidelines for genetically modified foods can work. Most important, wait for the promised economic
and consumer benefits of modified foods to be realized first in order to build broader public support for biotechnology.
Genetically modified food crops-corn and soybeans, mainly-have been grown commercially in the United States since the mid-1990s. In 1997, farmers planted about 17 percent of their soybean acreage with the new modified seeds. By 2001, the proportion had grown to 68 percent. And about 20 percent of national corn acreage is planted in insect-resistant modified corn.
In 1998, amid mounting public fears, the European Union banned imports of all new genetically modified seeds and of foods containing even traces of genetically altered material. In October 2002, in response to U.S. protests, the Europeans finally put into effect a new process that promised eventual approval for genetically modified foods. But the procedures are a sham, say U.S. agribusiness. It could take eight to 10 months each time a genetically modified product is submitted before approval is gained, and numerous EU member states have already threatened to veto such approvals.
"Unless the EU can get a very strong commitment out of key member states not to block the process," said Peter L. Scher, a partner at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw, who represents Monsanto, a producer of genetically modified seeds, "the U.S. has no choice but to file a case" on the grounds that EU restrictions are not
But such a suit would fly in the face of public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent polls show that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Europeans and about half of Americans oppose the use of biotechnology in agriculture and food production. Moreover, two-thirds of Americans believe that Europeans have a right to require labeling of genetically modified foods, even if it might reduce U.S. food exports.
Such skepticism reflects the well-founded public belief that the rapid spread of genetically modified crops is the result more of seed-company marketing hyperbole than demonstrable benefits to farmers and consumers. Adoption of Bioengineered Crops, a May 2002 study by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, concluded that, although the payoff from using genetically altered seeds varies by region and crop, "farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative." USDA economists say the attraction of the new seeds may be that they require fewer chemicals-pesticide use is down 6.2 percent on land planted with modified seeds-and thus save time for America's many part-time farmers. But consumers do not yet widely appreciate or understand such benefits.
Similarly, for all the agribusiness hype about "wonder crops" that could feed people in poor nations, and even deliver pharmaceuticals to consumers through altered foods, the average person has yet to enjoy the fruits of the genetics revolution. So why not wait for greater public support before launching a high-profile, high-risk food fight with the Europeans?
In the meantime, the United States and the European Union could begin a joint effort to broaden understanding of genetically modified foods. The two sides could also work toward developing a common set of rules that would determine when agricultural biotechnology products could be approved for sale and use, recommends a working group assembled by the Atlantic Council of the United States in a forthcoming report. Washington could use the threat of a WTO case as the incentive to sign such an accord.
In the end, the United States has a strong case against Europe's barriers to genetically modified products. And the Europeans certainly don't deserve further American forbearance. Yet in trade diplomacy, as in life, discretion is often the better part of valor.