U.S. Accelerating Controversial Crops (3/28)     Print

The Obama administration is moving to expand and accelerate U.S. production of genetically engineered crops – a trend that is eventually liable to ratchet up transatlantic pressures over EU resistance to importing “GMO’s” for consumption by Europeans.

The trend is highlighted in a series of recent decisions by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsac siding  with GMO’s. The process has been publicized because of criticism by the U.S. organic-farming industry, which sees Vilsac's actions as hostile to its interests.

Farmers of organic crops fear that the expansion of genetically modified plants increases the risk of seeing rogue seeds or pollen mix with their “pure” crops – a threat that could cost them.  European markets, for example, have rejected organic products when tests showed they carried even trace amounts of GE material. So organic farmers complain that they must compete not only against a thriving biotech industry, but also against policies in Washington.

The Obama administration’s stance favoring genetically engineered crops is a response to the upward trend in food prices that has become more acute in the last year. So far, this has had little impact on American consumers because the cost of basic grains, for example, amounts to only a small fraction of the supermarket price tag of highly processed foods. But the rising cost of food staples, including such items as bread, is seen as a global factor of human hardship and political destabilization.

Genetically engineered crops are cheaper (and more “abundant”) because they require less pesticides and less fertilizer, and often provide bigger yields than conventional plants. They also can flourish in harsh environments – a major potential advantage in areas threatened by adverse climate change.

Vilsak recently approved genetically engineered versions of alfalfa, corn (to make ethanol) and (on a more limited basis) sugar beets, which produce glucose, widely used in a range of American foodstuffs. There are currently 22 applications for approval of genetically modified crops being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has not denied any candidates so far.

Despite these significant factors favoring genetic engineering, farmers of “organics” are growing in number and scale both in the U.S. and in European countries.  In EU nations, there is strong resistance to genetically modified crops, even though they are often cheaper than traditional competitors. Opponents argue that there may be still-unshown risks involved in human consumption of such crops.

A recent example of this clash emerged in 2010 when European authorities resisted plans to import beef from cloned livestock in the U.S.


-------- European Affairs