- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

That giant sucking sound is not the sound of the Atlantic Ocean getting smaller. It is the split between Europe and the United States widening.

This time the issue is not war but funny food. Not funny ha-ha, but funny weird.

It seems Europeans don’t like their corn genetically engineered. They don’t want their beef stuffed with hormones. They gag at salmon spliced with a gene that makes the fish grow 500 percent faster than the Scottish variety.

And it’s hurting American farmers. Big time, as Vice President Dick Cheney would say.

Worried about losing even fragile allied support for the war against Iraq, the United States waited until after the war ended to complain formally that the European Union has had an illegal de facto five-year ban against importing bioengineered American foods.

The United States proudly says labs have made such food faster-growing, resistant to disease and more economical. Irradiated meat and genetically altered foodstuffs are just as much the staff of life as French bread and English fish and chips, according to Uncle Sam.

In turning up its nose at genetically altered products, Europe is rejecting good old American technical wizardry, harrumphs the Bush administration.

Aarrgghh, responded the Europeans.

As is often the case when old friends part ways, lawyers are involved. Big time. The United States has filed a lawsuit in the World Trade Organization charging Europeans with unfair trade practices in preventing millions of dollars’ worth of American food products from being sold in Europe.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative says that Europe’s squeamishness is a threat to American farmers. In 1998, U.S. exports of corn to Europe were $63 million; last year, the United States exported only $12.5 million worth of corn to Europe.

That’s not all. The alliance between the U.S. biotech industry and agribusiness is big and growing bigger. If Europeans turn their backs on food U.S. companies have invested millions of dollars in concocting, will the rest of the world reject it too?

European Union warnings that a major trade war looms if the United States doesn’t withdraw its complaint are dismissed by Washington. Europeans say they worry that bioengineered food is too new to have been proven absolutely safe. Nonsense, say U.S. scientists.

Europeans accuse the United States of running to the World Trade Organization every five minutes, citing the Bush administration’s case in the WTO aimed at protecting the U.S. steel industry. Europeans also want the United States to abide by a WTO ruling that warns Washington to end subsidies the trade group says unfairly help U.S. exporters. As for the new U.S. complaint, the EU claims it is “legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful.”

The United States says that at least $300 million worth of fine food has been blocked from being sold in Europe. Worse, says Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, if this European fustiness about U.S. ingenuity spreads, millions of people could starve due to rejection of cheaper bioengineered food in poor countries.

Technically, Europeans protest, they have not banned genetically altered food but are just a little slow in approving applications for the sale of such food in Europe. They want labels that such food is genetically engineered with clear disclosure of where such food came from and what was done to it. In other words, they want what American consumers demanded to know about irradiated food when the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled it safe.

Interesting that Europeans are the ones accusing the United States of lacking regulatory zeal and being overprotective of agribusiness. It used to be the opposite.

The EU also is blasting the United States for refusing to sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, signed by more than 100 countries in an effort to make certain that rules governing the safety of genetically modified food are followed. The United States counters that Europe picks and chooses what rules it wants to follow and that WTO rules on free trade are the ones Europe is ignoring.

The United States should be free to sell its products in Europe. But European consumers should have the right to know where the food they eat comes from and be free at the market to reject or buy it.

It’s disheartening that both sides are loudly talking past each other. It bodes poorly for cooperation on many fronts, just when we need our government to be on as good terms as possible with old allies. It’s up to the WTO to act responsibly and sort this out.

Ann McFeatters is Washington bureau chief for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Toledo Blade. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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