The Obama administration is moving to expand and accelerate U.S. production of genetically engineered (GE) crops – a trend liable to ratchet up transatlantic tensions about EU resistance to importing “genetically modified organisms” (GMO) for consumption by Europeans.

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March 17, 2011

The European commission has asked member states to begin testing imported Japanese food for increased radiation levels, although officials believe that health risks for consumers are low.

That assessment is based on the fact that Japanese agricultural exports to the European Union are limited to begin with – particularly from the affected regions. Moreover, the disruption and devastation from the earthquake and tsunami are likely to reduce those exports even further.

Nonetheless, the commission, the EU’s executive arm, said it would remain “vigilant” about possible risks as it requested the tests for all plant or animal products imported from Japan since March 15.

“It’s a precautionary measure,” said Frederic Vincent, a spokesman for John Dalli, the health and consumer affairs commissioner.

The EU imported 64.8m euros in Japanese agricultural products in 2010, according to the commission, with Germany, the Netherlands and the UK topping the list.

Under existing trade agreements, Japan is only allowed to export four types of animal products to the EU: fish, bivalve molluscs, casings and pet food. No establishments in the Fukushima prefecture – the centre of the nuclear disaster – are authorised for EU export. In the neighbouring Miyagi prefecture, a pet-food and fisheries plant are authorised, as well as 27 vessels that catch and freeze fish.

As for fruit and vegetables, Japan’s exports to the EU were 9,000 tonnes last year. Most of the fruit and vegetables produced in Fukushima are consumed locally. The vast majority of exports go to markets in east Asia, according to the commission.


Joshua Chaffin, Financial Times Brussels Blog

As of now, the death toll from Japan's nuclear emergency stands at zero. This contrasts to the thousands of people who perished in the earthquake and the tsunami, and yet it is the nuclear emergency and the threat of disaster that have captivated most of our attention. National Public Radio, in the United States, interviewed. Robert DuPont, who teaches clinical psychiatry at Georgetown Medical School and specializes in the study and treatment of fear, including the fear of nuclear energy. He told NPR's Renee Montagne that the American reaction to the nuclear threats has been way out of proportion:


Dr. ROBERT DUPONT: There are people in California taking potassium iodide to prevent cancers from the radiation coming out of this plant. What is that?  I think the answer is in biology. Fear dominates our attention. Whatever the tsunami was, whatever the earthquake was, that's over. Sure, it could happen again, but the nuclear reactor? Who knows.

MONTAGNE: Now, what makes people's reaction to nuclear energy so different than other energy sources - for instance, drilling for oil or coal mining - when they also present tragically heavy risks of danger and loss of life in the industry?

Dr. DUPONT: They do, but it's familiar, and it doesn't have the connection to Hiroshima that we have with nuclear power. We're used to thinking about industrial accidents. What we're talking about when we talk about nuclear power is what could happen, what almost happened. Aside from the accident in Chernobyl, you really don't have the bodies piled up, and I cut my teeth on the issue of a Three Mile Island, which was very interesting because there was a sense that we might lose the East Coast of the United States. Fear is all about what the future is, and you can never reassure the person to say it couldn't happen. I do a lot of work with people, for example, to help them deal with a fear of flying. And although there have been many years when there have been no deaths from a commercial airline in the United States, you never know when you get on an airplane whether your plane is going to crash or not.

MONTAGNE: Can it also be because,  in the case of the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power, it seems that they are not telling everything they know? So people, certainly in Japan, but also elsewhere in the world, automatically think about a worse-case scenario.

Dr. DUPONT: Yes, and I think that the biggest health problem associated with Three Mile Island in the commission's report about it was the fear, the anxiety, the mental stress that people have. I think that efforts to allay fears have the paradoxical effect of reinforcing the sense that, well, we're not hearing the whole story.

MONTAGNE: The nuclear power industry in this country saw a major setback after the Three Mile Island incident. Yet, in other countries after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, nuclear power was developed at full speed, from lesser developed countries like India to highly developed countries like France. Why didn't those populations share this sort of great fear of a nuclear holocaust that Americans seem to have in large numbers?

Dr. DUPONT: Well, one big difference is the question of whether there's a widespread sense that nuclear energy is necessary. And it's very interesting to see which countries have done this - France, for example. Japan is another country. And France is interesting because 75 percent of their electricity comes from nuclear power. And they make a big thing in France about people visiting nuclear power plants. I have been there and seen the nuclear power plants in France. And they are major attractions for students to come and visit. They are familiar to people. And this familiarity vaccinates the people, it immunizes them against fear. The United States could not be more different.

French Intellectual Calls it “Excessive” and Ineffective

The swine-flu epidemic was the latest high-profile example of the precautionary principle as applied in France. Health officials in France (as in the United States and in other European countries) opted for a massive vaccination program. All the attendant problems (cost, statistical risks of deaths from vaccines, government credibility on health dangers) were accepted by the authorities, who said that they were compelled to take this initiative in the name of the precautionary principle. In the case of some previous threats (such as mad cow disease), Paris took a more cautious approach. In the instance of the swine flu scare, the policy provoked public debate and criticism, especially once it became clear that the imminent threat was small – and as a result, French people ignored the vaccination program. As a case study, this latest episode illustrates some of the contradictions and problems can arise with a systematic adherence to the precautionary principle. Exploring the issue, François Ewald, a French philosopher of risk management, does not criticize the authorities’ handling of the flu threat but he does conclude the precautionary principle may be incompatible with the real-life practices of contemporary Western societies.

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The Precautionary Principle has become an important aspect of European Union regulatory and legal jurisprudence. Its ascendancy, however, drives some, particularly conservative intellectuals in the US, into fits of free market frenzy.

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