Loading icon

Frankenfood: Free Trade and the GMO Debate

News & Features | March 4, 2013

President Barack Obama took a look around at the faces scattered across the House Chamber—an ambivalent congregation of allies and enemies—and made an intriguing proposition, not only to the members of Congress but also to his fellow leaders across the Atlantic. In his annual State of the Union address, outlining his second term as President, Obama explicitly called for formal talks on a free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union, two of the largest economies in the world. While this issue was not a focal point of his speech, Obama went on to declare that such a deal would ‘boost American exports, support American jobs, and level the playing field in the growing markets of Asia.’

Free trade between the United States and the European Union has undeniable benefits. Trade between the two powers currently accounts for approximately $613 billion annually, a figure that would likely increase exponentially if such an agreement were successfully implemented. This would not only generate lower prices for consumers, and galvanize economic growth in general, but would also strengthen political ties between the trans-Atlantic nations.

While the timetable for achieving the deal remains somewhat unclear, it could take years, and possibly decades, due to the extensive nature of trade talks. Negotiations will likely be turbulent, especially given conflict over protected sectors of the agricultural industry, particularly the issue of genetically modified (GM) foods, whose genetic makeup has been altered with DNA from other organisms. Despite proliferation of these genetically modified crops in the United States, European consumers have traditionally rejected these ‘Frankenfoods.’ These differing attitudes across the Atlantic have historically been a major stumbling block in achieving comprehensive free-trade agreements.

The year 1994 marked the first commercial sale of GM foods with Calgene’s “Flavr Savr” tomato. Over the course of the decade consumer concerns grew over the safety of the newly introduced GM foods. In 1998, a series of food crises and elevated consumer distrust led the European Union to suspend approvals of all new GM foods. Meanwhile, approval in the United States increased but the new EU regulations severely reduced the number of American agricultural exports. For example, prior to 1998 Spain and Portugal bought approximately 1.75 million tons of corn from the United States each year. In the 1998-1999 season, Spain bought less than 10% of their previous year’s figure and Portugal bought none at all.

In May of 2003, the United States and 12 other nations filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO), citing a violation of international trade agreements by the European Union. The complaint specifically argued against a set of unreasonable standards for GM foods approval. While the WTO eventually ruled in favor of the complaint, policy changes have proven to be few and far between. Despite frequent attempts to pass reforms, the United States still does not require the labeling of GM foods on packaging, while the EU does unequivocally.

Global trends suggest that now is an appropriate time to attempt to shift European attitudes. Genetically modified crops have exponentially increased around the world since 1992, and 29 countries now permit commercial production, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. Over 10% of the world’s cropland is planted with GM crops, including 75% of the world’s soybean crop, 50% of the world’s cotton, and 25% of the world’s maize.

The long-term risks associated with adopting genetically modified foods as a staple of our diet are still hazy. The European Union and, with the exception of South Africa, the entirety of the African continent,) are predominantly GM-free. Critics see GM foods as another unscrupulous scheme from large biotechnology companies like Monsanto, designed to maximize profits at all costs, even at the expense of our health, environment, and economy.

But, as with any debate,there are two sides to the argument. Proponents of genetically modified foods hail it as the global solution to world hunger. As fertilizers and pesticides grow less and less effective, they need to be replaced with another technology, one that will revolutionize agricultural practices and meet the rapidly increasing need for nutrition in a cost-friendly manner.

BioCassava Plus is a project dedicated to genetically modifying the cassava, a starch root that is a dietary staple of over 250 million people worldwide, but lacks sufficient amounts of vitamin A, iron, zinc, and other essential nutrients. Backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the program seeks to augment the levels of beta-carotene, iron, and protein in a new breed of cassava that could potentially save millions of lives.

But not everyone is convinced of the beneficial effects of genetically modified foods. Golden Rice, a similar program, seeks to increase the level of beta-carotene in a new strain of rice and showcases potential struggles ahead for BioCassava Plus:extensive opposition to the project has kept Golden Rice from entering the market for 13 years.

Now that an opportunity to revitalize the troubled economies of both the United States and the European Union has arisen, the spotlight will likely migrate to genetically modified foods. The easing of safeguards in Europe will probably depend on a single question, given the lack of conclusive scientific evidence on the matter – do the benefits of GM foods outweigh the potential hazards?