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Food Fight Over Genetically Modified Food

January 31, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: Nearly half of the corn American farmers planted last year was genetically modified to be resistant to insects and herbicides. The same is true for about a third of the U.S. soybean crop. It’s big business for U.S. farmers, who sold about $50 billion worth of products to the rest of the world last year. The United States pioneered bioengineering technology, which has allowed U.S. farmers to grow bigger crops while using less water and fewer pesticides. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the use of genetically engineered products and requires scientific trials to prove their safety.

But many governments and consumers in Europe and elsewhere are not persuaded by that evidence and question the safety of the products both for human consumption and in the environment. They fear that resistance to herbicides could be transferred through pollination to undesirable plants, creating “super weeds,” for example. Protesters from the environmental group Greenpeace have invaded fields and destroyed crops, and other environmental groups have launched a campaign against the products.

This past week, delegates from 140 countries met in Montreal to draft trade rules for the altered foods and organisms. The result was an agreement which requires exporters to get permission from the receiving country before shipping genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, if they are meant for release into the environment, such as seeds. Advance permission is not required for products meant for human consumption. The agreement does require that the shipment be labeled as “possibly containing GMOs.” The agreement must still be ratified by 50 countries before it takes effect.

JIM LEHRER: The American and European interpretations of the agreement. Frank Loy is undersecretary of state for global affairs. He led the U.S. delegation to the trade meeting this past weekend in Montreal. John Richardson is the deputy head of the European Commission’s delegation to the U.S. Mr. Secretary, what will be the practical effect of this agreement?

FRANK LOY: The practical effect will be that the nations of the world have put together a regime that will give to each other information that will permit the nations, the receiving nations, to judge, to access the benefits and the environmental risks and environmental benefits of the products that they get. And I think in the long run it will depolarize the kind of dispute that has existed in the last few years. And I think it will be good for the biotech industry.

JIM LEHRER: Depolarized, Mr. Richardson? Does this depolarize this argument?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Yes, I agree with that analysis. I think this is about winners. The industry will win — the biotechnology industry — on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere because of predictability for what it’s doing. I think consumers and citizens will win because they’re now reassured that their concerns will be taken care of. And I think this planet which we live on will win because it gives us a chance to move towards something which I would describe as genuine sustainable development in the long run.

JIM LEHRER: But the argument is not over. I mean, Europe still believes that genetically modified food is not safe in some respects, and the United States does not, correct?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I don’t think that’s correct at all. It’s not a question of belief. It’s a question of examining what the risks are, what the potential risks are to the environment and to human health and to making judgments about those as information becomes available. In Europe, we are not sure that that process is over. So we are taking an extremely cautious attitude towards the approval of genetically modified substances — more cautious than in the United States. That’s a difference of degree. It’s not a difference in fundamental approach.

JIM LEHRER: Not a difference in fundamental approach, Mr. Loy?

FRANK LOY: Well, I think we both believe in caution and precaution. Some say we actually invented the concept. And we’ve certainly been practicing it in our domestic regulatory scheme for a long time. We think that in the area of human health, there simply is no evidence whatsoever that anybody’s ever been hurt by eating genetically modified food. In the area of the environment, we recognize that there are potential unintended consequences of introducing a particular seed and that you have to manage it. But we think it’s quite manageable. And we think that in the long run this agreement will make that distinction and will enable trade in these products to take place and will enable the harnessing of the benefits of genetically modified foodstuffs, which after all, we think are going to benefit the developing world particularly as it tries to feed itself.

JIM LEHRER: But you all believe that there is — this is a question. Do you believe that there is scientific evidence that the United States reads differently about this whole issue?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Yes. Scientific evidence on these subjects is not complete because we’re dealing with new technology. We’re dealing with new products. And the jury is still out, if you will, even scientifically. But I agree with Frank that we are dealing here with a technology, which has enormous potential benefits. I give you one example. Two weeks ago there were research results published in Europe showing that we can now introduce new rice varieties containing beta carotene, which will increase the Vitamin A content for this particular rice. There are 250 million children in this world who suffer from blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency. With any luck, this new technology will be able to cure those 250 million children. That’s enormous. We’re talking here enormous potential. And if we want that potential to be realized, we must make sure this technology is well examined were we adopt it so that it’s acceptable to our populations and then introduced successfully so that we can realize those benefits.

JIM LEHRER: So Mr. Secretary, what’s the argument about then? What was the argument? What was the argument that brought you to Montreal and that caused all these problems to begin with?

FRANK LOY: Well, the European Union and the United States had a somewhat different approach to this agreement. We have always viewed it as an agreement that dealt with bio safety, dealing with the risks of the biodiversity. And we were very concerned about introducing new varieties into the world and making sure that no unintended consequences happened. The European Union dealt with this more as a consumer protection agreement. We’re quite for consumer protection and we want our consumers protected. In fact, the United States regulatory system has protected the consumer exceedingly well. That’s one of the reasons I think we don’t have the kind of concern that the Europeans have where the Europeans believe that perhaps they’ve not been served so well by their regulatory schemes. So that difference of approach, I think, has characterized much of the discussion that we’ve had over the last year.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that? Do you agree with Mr. Loy’s characterization?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I think to some extent I do. Certainly what we’ve done in this particular case is come at the problem from a different point of view. But I think we would both agree that what you need in this type of agreement is a balance between the rules designed to promote the introduction of technology to promote the trade in these products, and the concerns of our citizens for their health and for the health of their environment. It’s balance between the two, which is needed, and I think this is a very important agreement as a precedent for other areas where we need a similar sort of balance. Connect it for example with the further development and liberalization of trade under the WTO (World Trade Organization). It’s balance — where we need it — and that’s very important. This is a breakthrough in Canada I think this week.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, let’s go back to the practical effect. What happens as a result of this agreement that wasn’t already happening? Let’s be specific. Let’s say there are some U.S. seed product that wants — that is now being sold in Europe or wants to be sold in Europe. What will this — how will this agreement affect that sale in any different way?

FRANK LOY: Well, once this agreement is in effect, then when there is a sale of a U.S. seed intended to be planted, there will be information given by the U.S. to the recipient country as to exactly what is contained in that seed.

JIM LEHRER: And that was not done before?

FRANK LOY: That was done frequently before. In fact, it was probably done all the time, but it wasn’t required.

JIM LEHRER: It wasn’t required. It will now be required?

FRANK LOY: It will now be required.

JIM LEHRER: And then that goes, say, to a European country. And, now what can the European country do with that information under the agreement that it couldn’t have done before?

JOHN RICHARDSON: Well, we can check of course whether this information is sufficient for us to be able to accept the product, to approve it for use in Europe. But I think asking about Europe and the United States here is a bit of a red herring, if I may say so. The great benefits I think from these products come particularly from developing countries. What they needed, I believe, was reassurance that their interests would be looked after. They don’t have the experts, the scientists that we have on both sides of the Atlantic and Europe and the United States. They needed something I think which would give them reassurances that what they were doing would protect their environment and their consumers. I think they’re going to have that now.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let’s go back to my question. What happens — a European country gets this information and reads it and interprets it and decides “We don’t want these seeds in our country.” Under this agreement, can you say no seeds?

JOHN RICHARDSON: You can say no seeds if you think the information is insufficient to come to a conclusion about the health risks of the seed concerned or the environmental risks. If there is doubt, if there is scientific doubt, if two scientific interpretations of the data are possible, then we still have the precautionary principle and could in this agreement, which allows governments under those circumstances to say, “Well, we don’t want to take any risk. We want to lower the level of risk which our population is exposed to. And because of that, we will not yet approve these seeds until we know more about them.” So the answer is, yes, we can still say no to them, but only provided we’ve done the scientific analysis.

JIM LEHRER: So that’s a loss for the U.S., is it not, in this agreement?

FRANK LOY: I don’t think so. This is not a market-opening agreement. And the markets that have been closed aren’t automatically opened by what we agreed to in Montreal. On the other hand, I think in the long run this exchange of information and this ability of countries to assess what it means that they’re getting, I think will actually begin to make trade flow more easily and permit countries to decide whether they want this product but do so with a lot more information. Let me add one thing about the Vitamin A case that John mentioned. He’s absolutely right. I think it’s an enormous breakthrough. I have to say, I think the United States’ insistence that there be room for the biotech industry to experiment and to sell its products and to develop new products is one of the things that has made discoveries like that possible and is going to make future discoveries possible. We can imagine easily that we’re going to end up with products that will permit you to grow more food with less land and less water and fewer pesticides, so that it is really our insistence that we make sure that that development is not throttled that I think is one of the good things in this agreement.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned red herrings, Mr. Richardson. Another underlying theme that’s been running through the reporting on this has been that Europe has been motivated politically to protect its farmers from U.S. farm products and the U.S. has been motivated to protect its producers from unfair subsidization by the Europeans. Has this been wrong?

JOHN RICHARDSON: I don’t think that’s right at all. Europe has been motivated largely by the concerns of its voters. And you have been watching earlier in your program all this reporting from New Hampshire. We live in democracies, and we must listen to our voters. If they want us to be cautious, our politicians have to be cautious — otherwise we’re going to lose the next election. That’s very important. But we have an interest, too, in the introduction of biotechnology. It’s European research I cited on Vitamin A — it was supported by the way, by the European Union money. So we have exactly the same interests here to have this technology adopted. It’s not about our farmers. It’s about our consumers, our voters, yes, but also our industry is involved.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Loy?

FRANK LOY: Well, in our case, one of the important factors in our thinking were our farmers, who are producing very good quality crops and in our opinion many of those crops were shut out from European markets. The motivation for that I will leave to John to describe. But in our opinion, it was based not on any scientific analysis, not on any scientific assessment of risk, but listening to what we would consider quite hyped noise from a lot of voters, as John suggests. And we think it was quite unfair. And we think that we suffered. Now, we have said that to them, and we hope that we will be able to work that out.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.

JOHN RICHARDSON: Thank you.