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Europe Can Afford to Pay Extra to Eat: Zambia Can't

Op-Ed Article
By Sebastian Mallaby
The Washington Post, Page A23
Washington, D.C.
Monday, September 2, 2002


The politics of climate change features right-wing Americans ignoring sound science, with bad consequences for humanity. The politics of biotechnology features left-wing Europeans ignoring sound science, with results that are equally nasty. And there's a further twist. Just when the U.N. environmental summit in South Africa offers an occasion to decry America's eco-vandalism, Europe's reckless ignorance threatens southern Africans with starvation.

Zambia, whose famine-struck people are eating twigs and poisonous berries, has balked at accepting American food aid for fear of the biotechnology that produced it. The refusal is absurd, because Americans have been eating biotech for years with zero ill effects on health or the environment. But the refusal also can be explained. The European Union shuts out America's genetically modified (GM) corn, encouraging Africans to doubt its safety. What's more, Europe's stance has led Africans to fear that if they allow modified genes into their countries, they may be barred from European export markets.

Europe's anti-biotech message reaches more than Zambia. Recently Zimbabwe and Mozambique also refused U.S. food aid, relenting only after striking cumbersome deals to mill the donated corn to prevent farmers from replanting it. In many poor countries, Europe's position deters the use of biotech-enhanced seeds -- in other words, it deters innovation in a crucial part of the economy. It's as though Europeans were to tell the United States: "We'll import your cars as long as you fire the engineers who might improve engine quality." But the Zambian famine represents a new low. The effect of Europe's position is to say: "Don't boost production of your own food, and don't eat foreign food either."

When Zambia first refused the food, the Europeans declared they wouldn't intervene in this dispute. Then, perhaps realizing that their reputation might suffer, the Europeans belatedly informed the Zambians that U.S. food is fit for consumption. But Europe's actions speak louder than its words. "If Europe has rejected the GMs then why should we accept them, just because we are poor?" said Zambia's president recently.

Like those Americans who deny climate change, European biotech-bashers are contemptuous of scientific standards. They know there's no evidence that genetically modified crops are dangerous, so they invoke something called the "precautionary principle"; this says, we have no grounds for shutting out this stuff, but it gives us a queasy feeling, so we'll shut it out anyway. Britain's technophobes have driven the government to conduct large environmental trials to test for hypothetical hazards. But the trials are disrupted by violent attacks on experimental crops -- apparently, the technophobes don't want their hypotheses tested.

It's one thing for rich Europe to deny itself the benefits of biotech; it can afford to pay extra for its breakfast. It's another to deny Africa the chance to feed itself. Whereas the dangers of biotech are unproven, the dangers of malnutrition are undeniable. One in three children in sub-Saharan Africa is underfed and suffers consequences ranging from mental retardation to blindness.

What's more, during the next 30 years, the world's population will rise from 6 billion to 8 billion, and these people will need feeding. This can be done by chopping down forests and planting marginal lands. Or it can be done by boosting yields on existing farms, courtesy of new technology. Meantime biotech has another advantage that Greens should love: Pest-resistant crops can reduce farmers' need for chemicals.

There are two possible ways forward. Europe may come to its senses -- especially if the recent electoral advances for conservatives in France and Holland are followed this month by a similar result in Germany. Officials at the European Commission tried last year to lift the ridiculous moratorium on approval of new biotech crops but retreated in the face of a political storm. If Europe's electoral pendulum swings -- and if European consciences twinge at the sight of starving Zambia -- perhaps the old continent will come up with some new policies.

Failing that, the United States should force Europe to its senses. The Bush trade team is mulling a challenge to Europe's biotech moratorium at the World Trade Organization; the challenge probably would be upheld, because Europe's policy is a trade obstacle unjustified by science or reason. Of course, Europeans would yell that Yanks were thrusting Frankenfoods down their unwilling throats; even the rumor of a trade challenge has driven the leftish Guardian newspaper to editorialize that "the British government has to decide between American corporations, which want access to European markets, and its own citizens, who fear a new technology which appears untested and threatening." But the truth is that biotechnology has been tested and tested and found safe. If the Europeans really want to stake their credibility on this dispute, let them.

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