It felt like an out-of-body experience.
Last week, I found myself sitting in an auditorium in Brussels—and listening to Europeans applaud genetically modified crops.
Yet it was no fantasy. I was at the 7th Forum for the Future of Agriculture —a one-day event by and for European farmers. Over a thousand were in attendance. There were a few African farmers, too, but if there were any Americans beside myself in the room, I didn’t meet them.
Speakers who wanted to win a favorable reaction from the audience just had to put in a good word for GM foods. Biotechnology was a ready applause line.
This doesn’t mean the debate over GM foods in Europe is done. Acceptance still faces a significant amount of political and cultural resistance. But the global scientific community now agrees that biotechnology is an essential part of the solution to food and nutritional insecurity in the 21st century.
We’re moving in the right direction, just at a slower pace than most of us would like. Fortunately, the next step forward is clearly marked.
GM foods are a subset of a larger issue that separates the United States and Europe: regulatory harmonization. This is the push to create common standards across international markets, so that product approvals on one side of the Atlantic receive the benefit of the doubt on the other side.
In other words, our regulations should work in tandem rather than in competition.
Consider the case of a European blueberry producer who spoke at the Forum for Agriculture. He noted the growing American appetite for blueberries. Yet U.S. regulations get in the way of his sales. They delay his deliveries so much that his blueberries spoil before they reach American consumers.
Would you hesitate to eat a bowl of blueberries in a Paris café? Of course not: The berries are perfectly safe, and we know it. Blueberries grown in Europe already meet adequate standards set by European authorities. Yet as they try to move to our markets, the additional rules at our ports and borders cause slowdowns and create losers: producers who can’t sell what they grow and consumers who can’t buy from alternative sources.
This is a problem worth fixing.
The benefits of regulatory harmonization would flow both ways. Europe currently exports more food to the United States than vice versa: more than $16 billion per year compared to nearly $10 billion per year. There are many reasons for this discrepancy, but regulatory barriers are a major one. Sensible rules will lead to more sales for American farmers and ranchers.
Bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic will have to forfeit a bit of regulatory turf. Yet the potential payoff is huge. If we can find a way to make our policies work together, rather than against each other, we’ll not only make life easier for producers and consumers in our own countries, but we’ll also have a chance to set sensible standards for the entire world.
By reconciling their regulatory differences, the United States and Europe will be in a strong position to bring down regulatory trade barriers in other nations. The movement of goods and services across borders would improve everywhere.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) talks between the United States and Europe finished their fourth round last month and a fifth round will begin shortly. Regulatory harmonization will be on the table soon. If the negotiations stay on schedule, they could strike a deal by the end of the year, forging a pact that improves ties between economies whose daily trade with each other is already worth $3 billion.
Progress on regulatory harmonization won’t cure Europe of its anti-biotech madness, but it would begin to treat the hidden protectionism that is one of its underlying causes.
And it would provide aid and comfort to our allies at the Forum for the Future of Agriculture, who would like to stop clapping for GM crops in their conference halls and to start growing them on their farms.
Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and other grains with his brother on a family farm based in North Central Iowa. Bill volunteers as a board member and serves as Chairman for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).