The Politics of Confusion


Europe now will require any food product carrying microscopic amounts of biotech ingredients to display a label designed to scare consumers away from buying it. Even items whose makeup is less than 1-percent biotech will receive the EU’s equivalent of a skull-and-crossbones or a scarlet letter.

Food will need to be labeled irrespective if there is any GMO protein or DNA that can be detected – that’s the case with fully refined oils. Or, like the case with corn starch – if the corn starch in a baked product came from corn with over 0.9% GM, the whole product would have to be labeled – even if the corn starch was only a minor ingredient.

With new rules like this, I can see why representatives from both Unilever and Nestlé’s announced they have no alternative but to permanently exclude all soybean oil derived from U.S. and Argentine soybeans from all their products. The traceability requirements would be impossible for them to meet

This move has nothing to do with science or public health. We know it doesn’t – because it can’t. There isn’t a shred of scientific evidence anywhere that suggests biotech foods are anything but perfectly safe to eat.

What we’re witnessing here is the politics of confusion at work. Ron Heck of the American Soybean Association put it well. “Europeans are being mislead into believing they will have a safer food supply, when in fact these new rules will lead to a dramatic decrease in food safety,” he said. “In the end, the EU’s new rules will lead to greater reliance on conventional and EU-grown crops, which means more pesticide use, greater environmental impact, less conservation of topsoil and fuel, and overall decreased food safety.”

At bottom, this is just another trade barrier. The Europeans apparently want to look accommodating, perhaps because they’re worried about the United States challenging them before the World Trade Organization over their longstanding ban on new biotech food approvals.

Yet this business about labels is no accommodation. Led by Greenpeace and other fear-mongering groups, European activists have been whipping people into a frenzy over biotech foods. The continent’s politicians have stood by in silence and let this happen. A few lonely voices have spoken out–British Prime Minister Tony Blair seems to grasp the importance of biotech foods, and scientific organizations such as the French Academy of Sciences and the French Academy of Medicine and Pharmacy have had positive things to say as well. Yet they have not been able to persuade the EU to give up its relentless crusade against a critical technology for farmers and consumers that has worldwide benefits.

One of the EU’s goals is to allow for “traceability”–that is, the ability to trace a particular food ingredient back to its source, such as the acre of land upon which it was grown. That’s not a bad motive, except that much of this can’t be done, such as when the product in question is soybean oil. The EU isn’t establishing reasonable regulations – it’s trying to set up standards that can’t possibly be met.

This is protectionism by other means, because one potential result is that many food companies will stop buying biotech foods. They may even quit buying American corn and soybeans entirely, on the grounds that so many of these crops in the United States are genetically modified (about a third of all corn and nearly three-quarters of all soybeans), that there’s no way they can meet the EU’s ridiculous threshold requiring a “purity” of more than 99 percent.

Buyers might shift away from the United States and toward Brazil, a country with a lot of farm acreage and an official policy against biotech crops. There’s only one problem with this – Brazilian farmers are already planting biotech seeds on a large scale. In fact, at a biotech conference in St. Louis last week, a Brazilian farmer said that if his government stopped him from planting biotech soybeans, his wife would keep on planting them. And, if she was stopped, his son would keep on planting the biotech seeds. The message was clear – Biotech crops have come to Brazil and they’re there to stay. Brazilian farmers recognize their value, no matter what the government or the EU has to say.

The EU’s policy defies logic. The obvious answer is to treat biotech food as no different from other kinds of food. In truth, it’s better, because it hasn’t been sprayed with as much pesticide and it protects the environment.

Now that I think about it, my label for this EU policy needs to be a bit bigger. In addition to “unfair,” it will say: “unscientific,” “confusing,” “protectionist” – and “wrong.”

Tim Burrack

Tim Burrack

Tim grows corn, seed corn, soybeans and produces pork. Has been very involved with Mississippi River lock improvements and has traveled to Brazil to research their river, rail and road infrastructure changes. Tim volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

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