Arguably, the most underreported story in the media these days is the ongoing negotiations over the proposed United States-European Union Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This massive free trade deal would increase U.S. and EU gross domestic product (GDP) by about 0.4% and 0.5% a year—a $100 billion annual windfall for the United States, compounded. Politically, the deal is interesting because the primary trade barriers between the U.S. and EU are not tariffs but redundant regulations. Companies that wish to participate in both markets have to wrangle with two regulatory systems, which could be streamlined (much as the EU has done between European countries).
Although trade policy puts people to sleep, the issue of biotechnology regulation has struck an emotional chord, especially among the European far left. Publics on neither side of the Atlantic have a particularly rational relationship with genetically modified food. For example, one recent poll showed 82% of Americans support mandatory labeling of genetically modified food, but 80% of Americans also support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA—i.e., all plants, animals, bacteria and fungi!
Americans and Europeans often fear that genetic modification can lead to unintended health and environmental consequences. However, millennia-old conventional breeding techniques change many more genes than transgenic technology, in an inherently less predictable way. It is widely believed that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are untested, but there have been thousands of independent studies on the safety of genetically modified foods. Moreover, every country that permits genetically modified foods approves them on a case-by-case basis with more hurdles than newly bred conventional foods. There are also environmental concerns and concerns about the alleged unethical behavior of biotech corporations. I lack the space to address them here, but most of these (especially the “Monsanto randomly sues farmers for trace contamination” myth) fall apart under scrutiny. The legitimate environmental worries about GM crops concern their relationship to pesticide and herbicide use. But that is a reason to regulate chemical inputs, not GMOs, which can also reduce pesticide and herbicide use in many contexts.
Many commentators believe that the U.S. will cede ground on the mandatory labeling of GMOs, since few consumers vocally defend GMOs. This would be a mistake. Many people, even those who are not afraid of biotechnology, mistakenly believe that mandatory labeling has a minimal impact. However, studies have shown that labeling can significantly increase the price of food, because labeling requires the separating of GM and non-GM ingredients at every stage in a supply chain. Moreover, it adds nutritionally-irrelevant information to food labels, misleading consumers into believing that there is a scientific basis for fear of GM crops. There is precedent for this sort of problem: when the FDA removed thimerosal from vaccines in response to scientifically baseless public fears that the additive caused autism, the move backfired and increased the public’s irrational fear of vaccines—despite the FDA’s assurances that this was a purely precautionary measure.
Europe itself is the best evidence that mandatory labeling of GMOs is crippling. The entire continent grows about 0.2% of the GM crops the United States does. This can be primarily attributed to the European Union’s decision to enforce mandatory labeling, a political decision that the EU’s scientific bodies now oppose. (One could argue that European consumers have different preferences, but for reasons I lack the space to elaborate on, this hypothesis is unlikely.)
If you’ve borne with me so far, you might be wondering what the big deal is if TTIP impedes the growth of GM technology. Surely the impacts of biotech science denial pale in comparison to anti-vaccination and climate change denial, right? Wrong. Conservatively, GM technology increases global farmer productivity by about $20 billion a year, driving down food prices. Moreover, anti-GM hysteria has spread from the developed world to the developing world, in an ironic and tragic form of left-wing neo-imperialism. Out of 54 African U.N. members, only four countries have approved GM crops. Beginning with Zambia in 2002, numerous countries have refused food aid containing GM crops during lethal famines, driven by pressure from environmental groups based in the developing world.
Over half a million children die each year from Vitamin A deficiency, and even more go blind. The deficiency is common where rice is the staple crop. Monsanto, Syngenta, smaller companies and several charities, including the Gates Foundation, have funded versions of a crop called golden rice, which contains the precursor to Vitamin A. All of these companies offered to waive license fees so that farmers can grow it for free.
The crop was first developed in 2000, then substantially improved in 2005 and could have saved thousands of lives by now. (A bowl of Golden Rice 2 provides 60% the daily recommended value of Vitamin A.) Its introduction has been delayed by Western activists who have fought its approval and even destroyed test crops.
Until genetically modified foods gain a greater acceptance in the countries where they were first developed, it will be impossible to stop the export of lethal ignorance. It is important that socially conscious and scientifically aware citizens speak up for GMOs, just as they have for vaccines and climate change mitigation.
Taylor is a member of the class of 2015.