The European Commission has just approved a biotech corn variety for human consumption in Western Europe's 25 countries. The EC also says that individual countries cannot block farmers from growing approved crop varieties. In effect, the EU is finally surrendering to the reality that genetically engineered crops are safe and effectively regulated.
Environmental activists all over the world must be crying into their fair-trade, organic coffee and wondering what their next fundraising scare will be.
The EC's decision effectively ends a "biotech war" between the U.S., which pioneered biotech crops, and Europe, where Greenpeace and other prominent eco-groups call them "Frankenfoods." The activists have claimed for years that biotech crops would poison people, create new food allergies, and unleash "superweeds" that would overwhelm the natural environment. None of this has happened.
European governments, particularly their environmental ministers, contributed heavily to consumer fears by echoing all but the most ludicrous claims of the activists. The European Union also officially blocked imports of biotech commodities, lending further support to the notion that they posed health and environmental risks. When the EU required all genetically-modified foods to be prominently labeled, supermarkets simply yanked them from shelves rather than lose customers.
Both the EU and member governments have contributed sizeable funds to activist groups that claimed the gene-modified crops were risky. Sometimes the government support was even noted on the activist's anti-biotech leaflets, lending a clear impression that the governments agreed with the activists' danger claims.
The ugliest attack in the biotech war was actually launched against poor famine victims in southern Africa after the drought of 2002. European activists, including Jesuit priests, told African governments that American corn donated as food aid was "poison." Many African officials refused to distribute the corn, even to people so desperate for something to eat they were boiling poisonous roots.
The President of Zambia personally ordered thousands of tons of American corn-the same corn we eat in our corn flakes and taco chips-deported from his country despite the food crisis.
The EC's latest decision effectively ends the transatlantic biotech war. The newly approved corn is herbicide-tolerant, which allows farmers to more effectively control weeds and reduce soil erosion.
Many countries, including China, Canada, India, Argentina, and South Africa are already growing genetically modified crops extensively. For example, nearly 60% of China's cotton is biotech. In fact, one fourth of all the world's fields of corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola are now biotech.
The EC's decision means that American farmers can now plant approved biotech varieties without fear of government trade barriers in important European trade markets. Monsanto already has an herbicide-tolerant wheat variety ready for launch. U.S. wheat growers asked them not to market it in the face of the EU boycott.
Biotech potatoes that resist the ravenous potato beetle and the deadly late blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine have also been developed-some by universities-but were pulled from, or never put on, the market for fear consumers might boycott the French fries and chips.
Such boycott fears will now recede, though activist groups have a long history of repeating charges even after they have been refuted by reality. Millions of Americans, for example, still believe that farm pesticides cause human cancer-even though the U.S. government, American Cancer Institute and the American Medical Association have dismissed such concerns.
We can be sure that despite the acceptance of biotech crops in Europe, the eco-groups will come up with a new scare. After all, sharks drown if they stop swimming.
Alex Avery is director of research and education for the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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