The Looming US-EU Conflict Over Plant Biotechnology and Trade, Speech Given in Washington by Tony Van der Haegen of the EU Delegation to the U.S.

October 4, 2002

Washington, 03 Oct 2002

Speech by
Tony Van der haegen
Agriculture, Fisheries and Consumer Affairs
European Commission Delegation

Cato Policy Forum
Washington, DC
September 25, 2002


I would like to thank the organisers for their kind invitation to speak here before you.

Well, first I have to make some comments on the presentation and executive summary given by Ron Bailey.

The executive summary says:

"The EU has banned all food containing GMOs on the basis of the 'Precautionary Principle' under which regulators do not need to show scientifically that a biotech crop is unsafe before banning it. Jettisoning scientific risk assessment and replacing it with a precautionary approach will open the entire trading system to interruptions based on arbitrary justifications."

These assertions about banning all food containing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) and the description of how we apply the Precautionary Principle (PP) is clearly polemic and shows some unfamiliarity with the European Union legislation and practices.

Allow me to explain:

First of all, we did not ban all food containing GMOs. Up to now, 18 GMOs (4 of which were corn) have gone through the pre-marketing authorization process.

It is true, however, that since October 1998, the authorization process has been suspended due to its blocking by 5 Member States. To my knowledge, these countries have never invoked the Precautionary Principle to justify their position as far as food is concerned. They always said that, taking into account the psychology of the consumer and being in a democracy, they wanted to enhance the existing legislation with labelling and traceability provisions of GM food/feed in order precisely to restore consumer confidence. The PP is, however, applied on the basis of risk assessments in the case of the release into the environment.

Hence the ten-year monitoring period in Directive 2001/18 . Also, the fact that the US has not been able to export corn to the EU is not because the EU bans GM crops, but rather that US producers and shippers are unwilling to segregate their corn to ensure that only approved varieties are shipped to the EU.

Furthermore, regarding the Precautionary Principle or Precautionary approach, we are not married to one expression-this could be a speech in itself.

The Precautionary Principle is too serious a management tool to be dismissed simply as a hoax. Be assured that we do not jettison scientific risk assessments. One remark I should make, however, is that in the case of BSE, scientific evidence was scarce or contradictory. Had we then used the PP, which is above all a risk management tool, we would not have had the BSE crisis we had and we would not be here talking about the looming trade war over plant biotechnology because, in the absence of this crisis, the EU consumers would probably have developed a much more positive attitude towards GMOs.

My speech on the Precautionary Principle is on the Washington Delegation website.


I think it is necessary first to explain in what social context our biotechnology legislation came about and why other initiatives were taken.

There is a huge civil society problem in Europe insofar that a preponderant majority of EU consumers are not inclined to buy food produced with genetically-engineered organisms. Being a civil society problem, and Europe being a democracy, this in turn has political consequences. Let us have a look at the situation through a recent Eurobarometer (European polling instrument which covers the 15 countries of the European Union). The latest figures we have at our disposal are those of the December 2001 Eurobarometer.

2.1 High level of concern

Safety is the most important ingredient in food for the European consumer. A large majority of Europeans are worried about food, particularly genetically engineered food.

Acceptance of GMOs is low; 70.9% of EU consumers stated that they do not want this type of food; 85.9% favour a clear labelling of GM food; and an overwhelming 94.6% of European citizens believe that it is their right to choose when it comes to GMOs. Fifty-six point five percent of the respondents are even of the opinion that GMO-based food is dangerous. Strangely enough, the same Eurobarometer shows large majorities in favour of biotechnological medicines (87%-red biotech). Why? It is not easy to analyse these figures, but medicines are not food and they definitely bring an added value to the consumer.

One can argue at length about the rationality or irrationality of the EU consumer's attitude towards biotech food. This attitude is largely due to a series of factors which are fundamental if one wants to understand the European situation:

There is a food surplus, thus consumer choice is a given. Food in Europe involves far more than mere sustenance. Generally speaking, the European has a relationship with food which is emotional, and it is even a fundamental part of his culture.

The blood scandal (blood tainted with the AIDS virus) which occurred in the EU at the end of the 1980's, as well as, afterwards, food scares related to BSE (1990's) and Dioxin (1999). Each time, politicians said there was no danger and each time they were wrong. Of course, their risk management decisions were based on the information given to them by their scientists (e.g., in the case of BSE-could not jump the species barrier: sheep > beef > humans).

In the case of BSE, which causes a form of Kreuzfeld-Jakob disease in humans and which up to now is a terminal disease, just over 100 people have died. Uncertainty about the incubation period makes extrapolation by UK scientists distressing: they reckon there are between 150,000 and 200,000 deaths to come.

These fears have been greatly amplified by scaremongers, such as the tabloid press, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. Quite often, members of these organisations unlawfully destroy GM field trials in Europe.

Faced with growing popular pressure to phase out GMOs, many retailers have adopted a restrictive stance on GM food. McDonald's Europe has pledged to stop selling meat and eggs deriving from animals fed with biofeed. This goes far beyond the existing or proposed EU legislation.

The disastrous and, for some, arrogant PR campaign of biotech companies in Europe (supply-driven, totally ignoring the final consumer, considered by some as forcing down their throats food they don't want to eat), together with their marketing timing, was such that GM products reached Europe at the height of the BSE crises.

The heart of the matter: to the EU consumer, GM food is neither cheaper nor does it taste or ripen better. There is no added value and plenty of other choices, and there are food scares, so why take the risk? "Do we really know the potential long-term risks to health and the environment?" asks the EU consumer.


In order to restore consumer confidence, the European Commission has taken several fundamental steps, the objectives of which were and still are:

Allowing consumer choice and transparence: where does the food come from, what does it contain?

Modernizing the EU food legislation, a legislation which was old, patchwork and cumbersome. A legislation which was clearly not adapted to the food/feed crises. Remember that feed contamination was the root of the majority of the recent food crises.

These objectives were first put forward in the White Paper on Food Safety which was published in January 2000. Less than three years later:

the old Directive (90/220) has been revised (2001/18);

draft legislations in GM food/feed as well as labelling/traceability of food and feed are being discussed by the European Parliament and the Council of Minister and will probably be law at the end of spring 2003;

the board of the European Food Safety Authority is in place;

Studies on the safety of GMOs have been carried out showing that generally speaking GM foods are probably safer than their conventional counterparts because of the extensive testing to which they have been subjected;

the heads of state or government adopted a strategy paper on life sciences and biotechnology in March 2002. In this paper, the EU is saying that from a competitive point of view the 15 countries of the European Union can no longer afford to heap suspicion on biotechnology as a whole. Biotech applications including health care and industrial biotech will together amount to a world market of more than $1.762 trillion in 2010. And what do we see: Many EU biotech companies are fleeing to the US. The EU consumer's attitude has stifled the EU competitive position, weakened its research capability and could limit the EU policy options in the long term. Thousands of future jobs are jeopardised. In other words, the EU is seriously lagging behind.


Considering all this, we must now also confront our obligations concerning the resumption of authorizations. We must break the deadlock. The Commission believes that the conditions are now ripe to start on that process with imminent entry into force of Directive 2001/18 and the advanced state of the food/feed and traceability proposals. There is little point in talking about innovation in the abstract unless we, as a Union, can take sensible decisions, based on thorough scientific assessment.

Unless we embark afresh on this route, we can forget about increased competitiveness, consumer choice, jobs and wealth arising from green biotechnology.

Biotechnology will be a major driving force for future innovation, and we cannot deny the huge potential it may offer-cheaper, safer, more cost-effective production, in addition to significant potential benefits for agri-food production.

The two Commission proposals, on food/feed and traceability, presented last year provide a sound and balanced platform upon which we can build. Several issues need to be resolved, but I am confident that we will make significant progress in synergy with the efforts of the Danish Presidency.

* * *

[The European Commission has now clearly come out of the woods and taken a clear position in favour of biotechnology. But the EU Commission is not the only player here. In the EU interinstitutional system there is also the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.]


Where are we regarding the resumption of the authorization process of GMOs and the two draft regulations on GM food/feed and labelling/traceability?

5.1 Calendar:

Authorization process: New Directive (2001/18) comes into effect on October 17. The complementary information requested from the biotech industry can be analysed as from October 18. Considering the procedure, we can only hope that the approval of some new GMOs is no longer very far away.

New draft regulations:

EU Parliament: 3rd July: First reading in Parliament. Parliament wanted more stringent provisions but Commission has rejected them, e.g., threshold for labelling 0.5% instead of 1%.

Council: Working groups meet regularly. Danish Presidency hopes to reach common position around mid-October: the Agriculture Council meets on 15th October (deals with food/feed) and the Environment Council meets on 17th October.

After that the proposals go back to the EU Parliament for a second reading, after which the two councils take a final position. If there is no agreement between Council and Parliament, then a conciliation procedure takes place between them (conference in the US) with the Commission as go-between.

If all goes well, we can hope that the two draft regulations will enter into force around end of spring. This could mean that there would be some parallelism between the adoption of the two regulations and the authorization process.

5.2 Details:

Food/feed regulations: apart from a "constitutional" discussion between the Council and the Commission about to whom the GM approval requests should be sent, the discussions are centred for the moment on this:

1. 1% threshold (which can be reduced [commitology] for adventitious contamination or technically unavoidable traces of NON-AUTHORISED GMOs if they have been positively looked at by the Scientific Committee).

2. 1% threshold for mandatory labelling of GMOs or ingredients.

3. The "may contain" provision for GMs in bulk shipments. Some Member States want to know exactly which GMs are in the shipment of commodities intended for food, feed or processing.

6. WTO and the Future

First we have to make a distinction between the WTO case about the moratorium and a case about our new food/feed and labelling/traceability legislation.

As for the first, I am confident that the approval of the first GMs in the pipeline is not far away.

As for the second, a WTO case would not help. Since the problem is a consumer one, one should avoid, on both sides of the Atlantic, that key players resort to scaremongering tactics, gross exaggerations and unsubstantiated claims.

We need to get away from the emotional, the irrational. There are irrational fears of GM food in the EU and equally irrational fears in the US about how we in Europe are approaching the issue. I repeat that going to the WTO would not help and could even backlash: our consumers will only become more concerned about biotech. Furthermore, the scaremongers might blow up the whole thing and induce even some anti-American feelings amongst the EU consumers. As long as consumer confidence is not restored, GMA or other companies will not be able to sell their GM products in Europe. Our hope is that the scares gradually go away.

Personally, I am convinced that genetically engineered food is definitely going to break through in Europe between now and a, hopefully, not too distant future, when the second generation of GMOs with nutritional or pharmaceutical traits will give the European consumer a real bonus. At that point, by the way, the companies producing these new GMOs will want them Identity Preserved, traced and labelled.

I thank you for your attention.

Full text including Annexes and footnotes


I Biotech Legislation
II US Exports
IV A Changing World and even perhaps a Copernican Revolution
V Segregation
VI Labelling

European Union
Delegation of the European Commission to the United States
2300 M Street, NW, Washington, DC 20037
Telephone: (202) 862-9500 Fax: (202) 429-1766
Copyright © European Union. All Rights Reserved

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