U.S. Accelerating Controversial Crops (3/30/11)     Print Email

The Obama administration is moving to expand and accelerate U.S. production of genetically engineered (GE) crops – a trend liable to ratchet up transatlantic tensions about EU resistance to importing “genetically modified organisms” (GMO) for consumption by Europeans.

The trend is highlighted by a series of recent decisions by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsac siding  with GMO’s. The process has been publicized because of criticism by the U.S. organic-farming industry which sees Vilsac's actions as contrary to its interests.

“Organic” farmers fear that the expansion of genetically modified plants increases the risk of seeing rogue seeds or pollen mix with their “pure” crops – a threat that could cost them.  European markets, for example, have rejected organic products when tests showed they carried even trace amounts of GE material. So organic farmers complain that they must compete not only against a thriving biotech industry but also against policies in Washington.

Alongside the tensions over GMO’s, a parallel transatlantic controversy has erupted over U.S. desires to export beef from cloned steers to Europe. In 2010, European authorities resisted plans to import beef from cloned livestock from the U.S. The quarrel in Europe about applying the precautionary principle to so-called novel foods broke into the open after disclosures on March 29, 2011, about a break-down in negotiations on the issue of labeling between the European Commission and the European Parliament. There was agreement on both sides on the need to ban all food products taken from cloned animals. So the intra-European dispute now centers on the question of consuming beef from animals bred from cloned cows – and about labeling that would permit clear traceability for consumers.

On the broader issue of GMO’s generally, the Obama administration’s stance favoring GE crops reflects officials’ concern about the upward trend in food and commodity prices worldwide in the last year. So far, this swing has had little impact on American consumers: the cost of basic grains, for example, amounts to only a small fraction of the supermarket price tag of highly processed foods for Americans, but the rising prices of food staples, such as bread, is seen as a global factor of human hardship and political destabilization.

GE crops are cheaper because they require less pesticides and less fertilizer, and they often deliver bigger yields than conventional plants. They also can flourish in harsh environments – a major potential advantage in areas threatened by adverse climate change.

Vilsak recently approved genetically engineered versions of alfalfa, corn (to make ethanol) and (on a more limited basis) sugar beets, which produce glucose, widely used in a range of American foodstuffs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not denied any similar recent applications..

Despite these significant factors favoring genetic engineering, farmers of “organics” are growing in number and scale both in the U.S. and in European countries.  In EU nations, there is strong resistance to genetically modified crops on the grounds that there may be still-unshown risks involved in human consumption of such crops – an application of the precautionary principle that prevails in EU decision-making. Proponents of GE crops argue that there is no scientific basis for rejecting them on health grounds and that any risk is outweighed by their advantage in being cheaper to produce and sell and consume.



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