More than a Food Fight

If the United States and Europe cannot settle their disagreements over agricultural biotechnology, the fallout will extend far beyond the food business.

From some perspectives, the news for agricultural biotechnology boosters seems good. Latest figures show farmers sowing genetically modified (GM) crops with a vengeance. Over half of the U.S. soybean crop, 25 percent of corn, and over 70 percent of cotton output are from GM seed. In 2000, annual global plantings of transgenic crops exceeded 100 million acres for the first time: an increase of 11 percent over 1999 and a huge gain over the 4 million acres planted in 1996. And finally, in February the European Parliament paved the way for ending Europe’s de facto three-year moratorium on new approvals of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by ratifying a revised directive (90/220/EEC) governing their environmental release and commercialization.

Then why do we hear so much doom and gloom in the press? Why is the International Herald Tribune running a page-one story headlined “For Biotech, a Lost War”? Why are two of Britain’s top three food retailers announcing that their house-brand meat products will be produced only from animals that do not eat GM feed and that they are committed to offering non-GM dairy products? And what do we make of the Clinton administration’s secretary of agriculture’s warning to incoming secretary Ann Veneman that GM food will be her top priority. “Biotechnology is going to be thrust on her,” according to Dan Glickman, “whether she wants it or not . . . like it was on me, big time.”

Veneman’s counterpart in Germany is Renate Kunast, a newly appointed superminister for food, agriculture, and consumer protection and coleader of the Green Party, who is determined to steer agriculture “back to nature.” Her views on GM foods are doubtless consistent with those of fellow Green Party boss and German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who recently said: “Europeans do not want genetically modified food–period. It does not matter what research shows; they just do not want it and that has to be respected.”

Robert Zoellick, President George W. Bush’s new trade representative, will have his hands full. The de facto moratorium on approval of new GM foods won’t be lifted until after the European Commission formally publishes a whole raft of legislative proposals that include requirements for traceability and labeling of GM products; measures that will take time to develop and that U.S. exporters will find difficult and costly to meet. And immediately after the Parliament’s vote on directive 90/220, France and five other European Union (EU) countries issued statements saying they want the moratorium maintained.

When asked about GM crops during the presidential campaign, George W. Bush responded that, “The next president must carry a simple and unequivocal message to foreign governments: We won’t tolerate favoritism and unfair subsidies for your national industries. I will fight to ensure that U.S. products are allowed entry into the European Union and that accepted scientific principles are applied in enacting regulations. American farmers are without rival in their ability to produce and compete, and the future prosperity of the U.S. farm sector depends in large part on the expansion of global markets for U.S. products.”

Before Zoellick’s appointment, business and foreign policy pundits were predicting a major trade collision between the United States and Europe over beef, bananas, and “funny plants”; that is, Europe’s exclusion of growth hormone-fed U.S. beef, of bananas produced by American-owned companies in Latin America, and of GM foods. Disturbingly, two of these issues hinge on public attitudes toward science in general and public confidence in government science in particular.

Science and trade

The establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, along with breakneck progress in genomics and information technology, helped place science squarely at the center of international economic forums and controversy. WTO negotiators, afraid that nations would try to circumvent liberalization with nontariff trade barriers based on bogus health arguments, created the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (food safety and animal and plant health) measures. This SPS Agreement allows countries to set their own food safety standards but mandates that these regulations must be science-based and cannot arbitrarily discriminate against the goods of other nations.

But the problem arises (as in the case of Europe’s ban on U.S. hormone-treated beef) over whose science is authoritative and decisive. And what if consumers reject products such as GM foods even after national government and international science bodies deem them safe? With trade between the United States and Europe approaching $450 billion annually, the answers to these questions are significant ones for the U.S. economy. How they are resolved also has important implications for U.S. science and for global development.

The public response to GM foods can be linked to events that have no direct link to genetic engineering. Over the past five years, science itself has taken a beating in Europe. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), better known as mad cow disease, is the chief culprit. In 1996, after eight years of bureaucrats and politicians claiming that mad cow disease was under control and posed no risk to humans, British government ministers did a dramatic about-face. They admitted that eight people in the United Kingdom may have died from eating BSE-infected cattle. That number has since risen to 70, and some experts estimate that over the next 30 years, as many as 500,000 people in Britain could die from the human form of the disease, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Officials conceded that the government failed to protect livestock and public health. They acknowledged that the government misled the public and misrepresented what was known scientifically about BSE. The government then implemented stringent control measures that resulted in the slaughter of millions of animals and in economic losses totaling an estimated $5.5 billion. But the lasting impression left on the British public is that science failed. According to a Parliamentary report released in 2000, the U.K. government’s handling of BSE created “a crisis of confidence” in science and government. It gave rise to a prevailing public sentiment that is skeptical of all science associated with government or industry and wary of science whose purpose and results are not obviously beneficial to them.

Citizens in Britain are now likely to trust only in science that is seen as “independent.” For them, Greenpeace appears more trustworthy than what the electorate believes is a secretive and often misleading British government. Scientific research is viewed as increasingly commercialized, and the peer review process as not screening out financial conflicts of interest. These public attitudes are fed by a British press that often seems more worried about circulation figures than about quality science reporting. When over one-fifth of the British public believes that ordinary tomatoes don’t have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do, it doesn’t take much to frighten readers into feeling risk-adverse and leery of new technologies such as GM food, which many Europeans refer to as “Frankenfood.”

Countries are paying an enormous price–politically, economically, and socially–for this erosion of trust in government and science.

In late 2000, the BSE crisis hit the Continent, as Dan Glickman would say, “big time.” Increased animal testing showed almost 200 BSE cases in France, 8 in Germany, and 26 in the Benelux countries. Although these numbers are small compared to the more than 175,000 BSE cases in Britain, continental governments were perceived to have misled their publics about the effectiveness of national detection and prevention schemes and about the risks of this frightening and insidious disease spreading to their cattle herds. The press had a field day. The EU was forced into drastic measures to quell public panic. At a midnight meeting in Brussels in early December, EU agricultural ministers agreed to an emergency program to stop the disease’s spread that may cost as much as $6.6 billion. Its key aim is to repair consumer confidence in Europe’s besieged health and food safety regimes.

But despite EU actions, the consumer crisis is growing worse. European beef consumption has dropped 27 percent. In Germany it has decreased by half, and a growing number of nations outside Europe are banning EU beef imports. All this could drive the cost of mad cow disease safeguards even higher. Countries are paying an enormous price–politically, economically, and socially–for this erosion of trust in government and science.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a strong proponent of biotechnology and a true believer in the importance of science to Britain’s and the world’s future, has called public reaction to biotechnology “hysteria.” He criticized the British media’s “orchestrated barrage” and the “tyranny of pressure groups” for creating it. Blair recently warned that there is a danger of the United Kingdom becoming “anti-science.” It’s a fear shared and echoed in newspapers, laboratories, boardrooms, and government offices throughout Europe. In part, this is an understandable fallout from the mad cow disease crisis. It also is due to a growing list of debacles, including France’s attempts to cover up its inadequate protection against AIDS-tainted blood and Belgium’s failure to prevent the sale of animal feed contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls and furans, which have shattered popular trust.

Another factor is the liberal governments that came to power in Britain, Germany, and France in the late 1990s. These new leaders take environmental and consumer concerns more seriously than did their more conservative predecessors. In addition, Europe is suffering from the immense growing pains associated with almost doubling its membership to 27 very different nations over the next three to five years.

Lack of trust in government is a time-honored tradition in the United States, but in today’s fast-moving technological world, it can be an increasingly costly and dangerous condition, especially when eroding confidence in science is added to the mix. European citizens and policymakers are worried about the state of their regulatory systems. Although they have accepted new biotech drugs and cellular phones–technologies with obvious benefits that offset any perceived risk–they are raising ethical, consumer, environmental, and sustainability questions about new science and technology with an intensity not seen in the United States; at least not yet.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are playing an increasingly prominent role in shaping European public opinion and policy. Responsible consumer, environmental, and public interest groups, many of which operate in the United States and developing countries as well as in Europe, are a force that must be reckoned with. Given the importance of the U.S./European trade relationship, which is the world’s largest and fastest growing, the new U.S. administration must pay close attention to the European political climate. It must recognize from the outset that this is not just a food fight.

Building trust

This new era of globalization requires a careful effort designed to build and maintain European consumer confidence in U.S. science and technology. This demands taking specific actions, not just “spin.” If the United States is to succeed in the European marketplace, then it must help shape and embrace public confidence-building measures such as the still-to-be-defined “precautionary principle,” which The Economist describes as a “fancy term for a simple idea: better safe than sorry.”

Adoption of such a measure can make good regulatory sense if the measure is grounded in solid science and public health principles, if it is based on available scientific evidence and knowledge, if it is consistent and not arbitrary, if it recognizes uncertainties, and if it results in actions proportionate to potential risks. That’s a tall order. But given Europe’s current political and public opinion realities, an extensive and patient effort will be necessary to build confidence in new U.S. science and technology. If, however, the precautionary principle becomes the kind of bogus health dodge that worried early WTO negotiators, it inevitably will lead to trade battles and a lack of faith in science, which will benefit no one.

Sometimes industry is quicker than governments to adapt to new business environments. Thus, if British consumers are frightened of the risks associated with transferring genes into crop plants to make them more resistant to pests, but they support the use of biotechnology in medicine, it makes simple sense for corporations interested in biotechnology’s acceptance to lead with marketing biotech products that offer direct health or nutritional benefits and to invest more in research on potential environmental and health effects. Paul Drayson, chairman of BioIndustry in Britain, recently gave medical biotech companies in Europe a wake-up call. He urged them to engage the public more and warned that “if biotech is to flourish, the public needs to have confidence in the safeguards.” Even in the largely welcomed area of medical biotech, he argued, the public needs “to be reassured that the benefits far outweigh the dangers.”

Governments need to fund independent scientific research that informs health, safety, and environmental policies and contributes to the improvement of regulatory agencies responsible for food safety and environmental quality. Increasingly, U.S. and European regulatory agencies are going to have to reconcile their rulemaking approaches, a task made immensely harder by the EU’s own difficulties in harmonizing the regulations and cultures of its 15 member countries. International bodies such as the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Health Organization (home of Codex Alimentarius, WTO’s preferred standard-setter for measures facilitating global trade in food), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development also need adequate financial support to enable them to access the world’s best science when they are assessing the effects of new technologies.

The costs of doing all this are high. For example, John Losey [a coauthor of the 1999 Cornell University study that concluded that monarch butterflies are harmed by pollen from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) corn] estimated that it would cost $2 million to $3 million just to determine the risk of Bt corn to monarchs. As the New York Times noted, this is a huge amount to pay to look at “just one risk from one biotech organism to one species,” especially when the Department of Agriculture’s Biotechnology Risk Assessment Research Grants budget is just over $1 million annually. But greater research and regulatory expenditures look reasonable when weighed against annual U.S. food exports of $46 billion or the price tag of Europe’s new BSE protections.

This new era of globalization requires a careful effort designed to build and maintain European consumer confidence in U.S. science and technology.

In this contentious political climate, it is critical for scientists to be more active and effective in policy debates. We cannot realistically expect the popular media to change much in Europe or the United States. They are not likely to improve their science coverage dramatically or to moderate their sensationalist tendencies or political biases. Their mission is to gain readership or viewers, not to teach or promote science. Scientists themselves will have to take the initiative to raise the quality of discourse and policymaking.

One positive outcome of the GM debate is a new sense of urgency among Britain’s science establishment about becoming involved in public outreach and in efforts to improve science literacy. The Royal Institution recently announced that it is establishing an independent Science Media Center to better serve journalists on controversial science and technology issues. In an attempt to reach beyond traditional audiences, the British Association for the Advancement of Science now runs public dialogue sessions on science issues in wine bars in central London.

With the creation of a new Food Standards Agency (FSA), scientists in England also are promoting a new kind of government transparency that is unabashedly aimed at helping to regain consumer confidence in science’s independence and its dedication to protecting and improving public health. The government created this new institution to move accountability for food safety to U.K. health ministers and away from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which in the wake of Britain’s BSE crisis was perceived as a promoter of industry rather than a protector of consumer interests. FSA is run by an independent board appointed through open competition. All the agency’s policies are decided in public. All meetings have public question-and-answer sessions, and all information from these meetings is available on the Web. All FSA’s risk assessments and recommendations to ministers are made public, regardless of the final decision made by government political leaders. For example, FSA published in Nature the risk assessment behind its highly controversial recommendation (which the government accepted) not to ban French beef from British markets after the discovery of increased cases of BSE in France. FSA made this recommendation even though the French, contrary to EU rules, still prohibit import of British beef into France because of BSE concerns.

No short cuts

There is no silver bullet, no one action or single set of actors that will build greater public confidence in science in Europe. Government, science, industry, and NGOs on both continents all have important roles to play. But there is no going back to what some remember nostalgically as a simpler time, when the public seemed to have more faith in science and government and when scientists could work undisturbed in their labs. Even the now widely heralded Human Genome Project faced criticism when it was initiated 16 years ago. Nobel Prize winner James Watson notes in his latest book, A Passion for DNA, that there was considerable opposition and fear about the moral, legal, and social consequences of precise human genetic information. As a result, Watson played a role in the decision to create a specific program, which now accounts for 5 percent of the Genome Project’s annual budget, to define and deal with the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) raised by this brave new world of genetics.

In that same book, Watson regrets the role he played in calling for the temporary 1974 moratorium on certain types of DNA experiments and the convening of the landmark 1975 Asilomar Conference, which eventually led to safety guidelines developed and monitored by the National Institutes of Health. Watson now believes that rather than reassuring the public, the moratorium and Asilomar Conference alerted the public to health and environmental dangers that didn’t exist and gave recombinant DNA doomsayers a credibility they didn’t deserve.

Watson is wrong. The Asilomar action and the Genome Project’s ELSI program offer important lessons about how science needs to operate in the future. Both are models of engaging the public in prevention and confidence-building measures before problems arise. They helped create a more informed debate and a climate of public trust. These measures ensured positive U.S. government policy decisions that allowed the research to continue with federal funding and support. They helped prevent the hysteria that is plaguing Tony Blair.

When he was director of the National Science Foundation, former presidential science advisor Neal Lane spoke passionately about the need for scientists to reach out to the public and become “civic scientists.” In 1997, Lane said, “We need a routine engagement of the research community in public dialogue with the electorate on both the science and the societal context in which it exists. And this communication is not a one-way process in which the scientists talk and teach and the public listens and learns. On the contrary, the research community has as much or more to learn from the public as it has to offer that public. This process of dialogue cannot be learned in an overnight primer. It must be part of our public habit, firmly in place and functioning with trust on both sides.” In that same speech, Lane went on to say that issues such as cloning expose “the problems and dangers” of a lack of dialogue between scientists and the public. GM food is another of those thorny problems, and the need for science to be engaged, domestically and on a global scale, is ignored today at science’s peril.

Recommended Reading

  • Lord Jenkins, Science and Society (London: Select Committee on Science and Technology, U.K. Parliament, February 23, 2000).
  • U.K. Office of Science and Technology and the Wellcome Trust, Science and the Public: A Review of Science Communications and Public Attitudes to Science in Britain (London: U.K. Office of Science and Technology, October 2000).
  • John Durant et al., eds., Biotechnology in the Public Sphere: A European Sourcebook (London: Science Museum, 1998).
  • James D. Watson, A Passion for DNA: Genes, Genomes and Society (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2000).
  • Lord Phillips, June Bridgeman, and Malcolm Ferguson-Smith, The BSE Inquiry (London: U.K. House of Commons, October 2000).
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Cite this Article

Moore, Julia A. “More than a Food Fight.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 4 (Summer 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 4, Summer 2001