In prepping President Bill Clinton for the June G-7 Summit in Cologne, Germany, aides outlined European resistance to importing U.S. corn and soybeans, which scientists have tinkered with in the lab to make resistant to insects and disease. Washington contends that, absent scientific evidence such genetically modified organisms (GMOs) pose a threat to humans or to the environment, Brussels' refusal to certify such bio-engineered products for sale and EU mandatory labeling requirements for foods containing GMOs pose an unfair trade barrier. Sensitive to volatile sentiment at home on such environmental and consumer issues, the President queried whether the United States might be going too far out on a limb in defending the right to trade in GMO products.
The official U.S. position on GMOs did not change in Cologne. But, as Clinton's question implied, the U.S. hard line may no longer be politically tenable. Elected officials are leery of telling voters they need not know what their children eat. So the scramble has begun for a new approach to GMOs before voters demand it.
The middle ground is clear: voluntary labeling now, with mandatory labeling soon; increased regulatory oversight both in the United States and Europe; and, most important, a long-overdue dialogue with consumers about the costs and benefits of science's ability to manipulate traditional crops.
Imposing such constraints before there is scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful opens a Pandora's box of potential regulatory problems for future products. But it is unavoidable. The ultimate test of sustainability for any public policy is not to get too far ahead of the voter. And right now the commercialization of GMO products risks getting out in front of consumer acceptance.
Bio-engineered seeds now account for half of American soy production, a large chunk of U.S. corn production and their use has spread to Argentina and Canada. Opposition to their use was first voiced by European environmental groups a few years ago. London tabloid headlines about "Frankenstein Foods" then fanned consumer fears. The European Union rushed to issue a directive mandating labeling for goods containing bio-engineered products, such as soy oil found in many consumer goods. Wary of consumer boycotts, many retailers in the United Kingdom announced they would only buy GMO-free products. Gerber decided to sell only GMO-free baby foods worldwide. And thanks to such fears, last year the United States lost more than $200 million in corn exports alone to Europe.
To date, the GMO controversy has been slow to spread to the United States. But, predicted Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Food Policy Institute of the Consumer Federation of America, "we are one incident removed from a panic about these issues."
The food industry is not tone deaf. It has reasons for being leery of more testing and labeling. GMOs stand at the intersection of two great American strengths: agriculture and bio-technology. Any concessions that undermine that competitive advantage would be costly. Retailers know that labeling influences consumer behavior. With razor-thin profit margins in the food industry, even a small shift in buying patterns could jeopardize millions of dollars invested in developing GMO products. Food makers foresees consumer friendly crops bio-engineered to lower chloresteral or blood pressure. "But once you get a mandatory labeling scheme in place," warned a lobbyist for a major soybean processor, "it will be damn hard to make a positive claim about your product," because the label itself has a negative connotation.
But business is fighting a losing battle. "Industry has to keep in mind what the status quo is generating," said California Democrat Rep. Cal Dooley, himself a farmer, reflecting a growing sentiment on Capitol Hill. "The backlash in Europe in the last six months is cause for alarm."
The challenge is to craft a credible labeling and testing regime. Leaving GMO regulation solely with the Department of Agriculture keeps the fox in charge of the chicken coop. A better option would be for GMOs to be safety tested by the Food and Drug Administration and for their environmental impact to be assessed by the Environmental Protection Agency, a course endorsed by Consumers Union. To ease industry's concerns that labeling will deceive not inform consumers, the Federal Trade Commission should monitor labels for truthfulness and relevancy. To iron out differences with the European Union, Washington and Brussels recently launched a pilot effort to streamline review procedures for GMO products. It should be expanded. And the EU must create its own FDA, to bolster European consumers' faith in the safety of modern technology. Finally, the food industry should move rapidly toward voluntary labeling, with a commitment to inevitable mandatory labeling. Public debate can then focus on the nature and scope of that labeling.
Such a strategy would buy time (the EU has yet to be able to implement its 1997 mandatory labeling regime), allowing GMO technology to evolve and industry to find ways to better test for GMO residues and to segregate GMO from non-GMO products. It would create space for consumer education. And it would defuse a transatlantic conflict that threatens to spread to even more important U.S. agricultural markets abroad.
In fighting often irrational battles over bio-engineering, the food industry and the Clinton Administration should accept that the best defense is a good offense.