The Wall Street Journal
By Robert B. ZoellickThe U.S. -- joined by Argentina, Canada and Egypt, and supported by nine
other countries -- last week asked the European Union to lift its moratorium on
approving agricultural biotech products, in accordance with the rules of the
World Trade Organization.
The world stands on the threshold of an agricultural revolution. The science
of biotechnology can make crops more resistant to disease, pests and drought. By
boosting yields, biotechnology can increase farmers' productivity and lower the
cost of food for consumers. It can help the environment by reducing pesticide
use and preventing soil erosion. And new crops offer the promise of something
greater still: foods fortified with nutrients that could help stem disease --
including saving the eyesight of over 500,000 children who go blind each year
because they lack Vitamin A. Where food is scarce, or climates harsh, increased
agricultural productivity could spell the difference between life and death,
between health and disease for millions. Biotech rice, for example, is twice as
resistant to drought and saltwater, while withstanding temperatures about 10
degrees lower than other varieties.
For almost five years, the EU has violated its own rules and procedures --
and disregarded the advice of its scientific committees and commissioners -- by
arresting action on applications for biotech food products. This moratorium
violates the EU's basic WTO obligations to maintain a food approval process that
is based on "sufficient scientific evidence" and that acts without "undue
Some Europeans have asked why the U.S. and its 12 partners would not wait
longer. Yet the European commissioners working to lift the moratorium are the
hostages of their member states. As Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom
concluded last October: "I have stopped guessing when the moratorium would be
lifted . . . . [S]ome member states are opposed . . . and will try to move the
goal posts." We stopped guessing, too.
As we have waited patiently for European leaders to step forward to deploy
reason and science, the EU moratorium has sent a devastating signal to
developing countries that stand to benefit most from innovative agricultural
technologies. This dangerous effect of the EU's moratorium became evident last
fall, when some famine-stricken African countries refused U.S. food aid because
of fabricated fears -- stoked by irresponsible rhetoric -- about food
As a major importer of food, Europe's decisions ripple far beyond its
borders. Uganda refused to plant a disease-resistant type of banana because of
fears it would jeopardize exports to Europe. Namibia will not buy South Africa's
biotech corn for cattle feed to avoid hurting its beef exports to Europe. India,
China and other countries in South America and Africa have expressed the same
trepidation. "Thirty-four percent of the children [in Africa] are malnourished,"
says Dr. Diran Makinde of the University of Venda in South Africa. Yet Africans
are told of biotech crops: "Don't touch them."
For five years, the world has waited patiently, assured by European officials
that a change in policy is "just around the corner." But around every corner we
have found a new roadblock. First, we were asked to wait until new biotech
approval regulations were drafted. Then it was to wait for a labeling scheme,
then for rules on legal liability, and then for new regulations on where biotech
crops can and cannot be planted.
While Europe has added barrier after barrier to fight fictions, biotechnology
has demonstrated benefit after benefit based on facts. "No till" biotech farming
has reduced soil erosion by one billion tons a year. Over the past eight years,
biotech cotton and corn have reduced pesticide use by 46 million pounds of
active ingredients. The Chinese Academy of Science estimates biotech could
reduce China's pesticide use by 80%.
Overwhelming scientific research shows that biotech foods are safe and
healthy -- a conclusion that the EU's own Directorate-General for Research
reached two years ago. The National Academies of Science and Medicine in France
concur. So do the Scientific Academies of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, the U.K.
and the U.S. Dr. C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University presented me with a
statement signed by more than 3,200 scientists world-wide, including 20 Nobel
laureates, supporting agricultural biotechnology.
Some claim that we are "forcing" biotech foods on European consumers. Yet all
we ask is for consumers to have the right to make their own decisions, a right
they are now denied because the EU is blocking access to foods that EU
regulators and scientific associations acknowledge are safe. The legal case for
biotechnology is clear, the science overwhelming, and the humanitarian call to
action compelling. We hope this debate will lead the EU to finally lift its
moratorium without imposing new barriers.
Mr. Zoellick is the U.S. Trade Representative.
Copyright 2003 The
Wall Street Journal