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Will European Requirements for Labeling GMO Foods Survive New Trade Negotiations?

Michael Lipsky

This week U.S. and European negotiators will begin secret talks that could bargain away a key element in American resistance to GMO foods. The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), also referred to as a Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), will focus on "normalizing" regulatory practices that business interests deem limit trade, including the European approach to genetically modified foods. 

Americans who favor allowing consumers to decide for themselves whether to purchase foods containing GMOs should pay close attention as discussions get under way.

A strong majority of Americans favor labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods, and support for labeling is growing. In recent weeks the Connecticut and Maine legislatures, and the lower house in Vermont, voted for GMO labeling, and a dozen or more state legislatures are considering similar actions. At the national level 30 Senators and House members this year co-sponsored Sen. Barbara Boxer's bill to require GMO labeling. When she first introduced the legislation 13 years ago, she was a lone voice on the issue.

An increasing number of Americans want to have a say in whether they approve of the transformation of the food supply. Labeling foods containing GMOs has become an issue for American consumers because over 90 percent of the soybeans and rapeseed (the basis for Canola oil), and much of the corn, is now genetically modified. Foods containing these ingredients, including the ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup, are likely to contain GMOs.

It's true that some American farmers freely purchased GMO seeds and agreed to the patent requirements of Monsanto and the other agrochemical companies. However, unlike the switch to automatic transmissions in cars, cell phones, and Wi-Fi, American consumers never had a chance to weigh in on whether they wanted to consume genetically modified foods. Labeling would provide such a choice.

Some, but not all, supporters of labeling are convinced that GMO foods are unhealthy, despite government assurances to the contrary. But supporters of labeling generally agree that the nation should move much more slowly in authorizing GMO crops because the long-run health effects of consuming GMO foods has not been adequately assessed.

In addition, supporters of labeling are concerned that the unregulated adoption of GMO seeds is forcing the rapid evolution of weeds and insects. The creation of "super-pests" has potentially severe environmental consequences, among other things requiring ever more potent chemicals to control them. Since the GMO era began over 20 years ago, agricultural chemical use in the United States has increased, despite claims by the other agro-chemical companies that farmers' adoption of GMO seeds would reduce dependence on chemicals.

In any event, there are strong reasons to believe that GMO crops are inconsistent with building long-term sustainable agriculture. Labeling would allow consumers to register their views on the environmental consequences of GMO foods in the marketplace.

Beyond these concerns, widespread support for labeling GMO foods is based on simple assumptions about transparency. We don't need to come to a final conclusion on the health or environmental effects of GMOs to agree that if a large proportion of the population strongly believes it is important to know whether their food contains GMOs they should be able to do so through reasonable requirements of food producers.

The Europeans offer a very different perspective from the one adopted by American authorities. The Europeans take what has been called the "precautionary" approach, an approach that strongly resembles American views on licensing new drugs and medical treatments. As a thoughtful summary of these issues put it in a recent Washington Postpiece: "...U.S. regulators tend to rely on short-term scientific studies about safety to give new technologies a green light. European regulators tend to be far more cautious, focusing more on what they might not know than on what they do know." Most E.U. countries ban GMO crops, and all require labeling.

For Americans who believe that people should be able to know whether their food has been genetically modified, the European experience is a critical reference point. The cautionary European policies toward GMO foods represent clear and tested alternative approaches to bio-engineering the food supply. It is difficult for opponents of GMO food labeling to marginalize their opponents when virtually every advanced industrial country except the United States (64 according by a recent count) requires labeling and subscribes to restrictive GMO policies.

Will U.S. trade negotiators seek the elimination of GMO restrictions in Europe? On the announcement of the new trade talks Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator Orrin Hatch, the ranking minority member of the Committee,wrote a preemptive letter to the U.S. Trade Representative in which they insisted that a precondition for American involvement in the talks should be gaining acceptance of the less restrictive American food policies toward sales and processing of GMO foods. American farm lobby groups have expressed their displeasure with a European resolution that would protect the E.U. ban on genetically modified crops grown in the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, international food manufacturers such as Nestle and Kraft, and giant grain traders such as ADM and Cargill, are supporting the negotiations as a way to loosen European restrictions.

Generating considerable apprehension among consumer groups is the super-secrecy of the negotiations and the utter lack of transparency that typifies international trade negotiations. Consider recent revelations on the secrecy surrounding the 10-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, currently under review. Members of Congress and others with interests in the details of these negotiations have been unable to obtain access to the text.

Moreover, if a draft treaty is finalized, Congress will only be able to vote the new treaty up or down. Whatever their possible merits, trade agreements are typically negotiated in secret and kept secret in order to minimize the chances that those likely to be harmed by treaty provisions will be able to mount effective opposition. Secrecy and restrictions on debate favor the big corporations whose influence is based on lobbying, campaign contributions, and insider conversations. They minimize the strengths of organized mass publics which depend for influence on their voice and their ability to mobilize voters.

In international trade negotiations, most often Americans worry that domestic regulatory protections or special tariffs will be bargained away in the interests of increasing trade overall. In the case of GMO foods, many Americans have exactly the opposite interest--maintaining the regulatory protections of foreign trade partners so that the precautionary approach to GMO foods practiced by Europeans remains intact.