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Date:

July 5, 2000

Subject:

EU Food Standards Are a Global Health Hazard

 

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EU Food Standards Are a Global Health Hazard

Wall Street Journal
July 5, 2000
By Dennis Avery

Is the old "Fortress Europe" turning into a serious threat to global trade
and world health? The new threat started, as so many bad trade ideas have,
in agricultural policy. For more than a century, Europe has tried to
protect its small farmers by blocking farm imports, first with
old-fashioned high tariffs and then with the "variable levies" of the
Common Agricultural Policy, which yielded absurd surpluses of grain, meat,
milk and sugar.

More recently, the European Union has attempted to frighten its own
consumers about the safety of modern farm inputs that raise yields:
pesticides, beef growth hormones, antibiotics that protect the health of
livestock and poultry, and most recently biotech foods. Not surprisingly,
EU countries have also prominently subsidized organic food, supposedly for
its "safety" from pesticide residues, willingly ignoring the greater
hazards inherent in organic food: higher levels of natural toxins, and the
pathogenic bacteria in composted manure.

The real purpose of such tactics isn't hard to see: The EU is using
specious health concerns to protect farmers from foreign competition,
especially since the GATT and now the World Trade Organization have made
it more difficult for Europe to do so through an old-fashioned tariff
regime.

Consider the evidence. In 1985, the EC banned beef growth hormones that
produced more meat with less feed. This official "confirmation of danger"
encouraged scaremongers -- especially after the EU extended the ban in
1989 to meat from other countries where the growth hormones were legal.
They ignored the science panels that have certified the hormones' safety
in the U.S., the EU (1981, 1987, and 1995) and the U.K. (1999). Meanwhile,
cow carcass tests indicate that EU farmers have simply bought their growth
hormones on the black market.

But none of that has prevented the EU from issuing yet another "scientific
report" claiming that children may be ultra-sensitive to levels of hormone
residues too low for radio immunoassays to detect. The new EU hormone
paper is directly contradicted by a 1999 U.K. Veterinary Products
Committee report, which concluded that the hormone estrogen occurs widely
in our diets, that the radio immunoassay method was able to detect
hormones at very low levels, that the doses used in cattle were radically
lower than in such human health products as birth-control pills, and that
90% of the low cattle dose simply passed through the animals.

The EU is also demonizing antibiotics in livestock and poultry feed. The
European Parliament says it will ban the antibiotics as feed additives,
supposedly because they threaten successful human treatment. (Again, the
"threat" is undocumented.) But this will hamper confinement-feeding
systems, which save millions of hectares of wildlands from being cleared
for farmyards. Sweden and Denmark have already banned them, and their hogs
and poultry are suffering more from diseases. The real need is more new
antibiotics.

The EU is also campaigning against chemical fertilizer by suing most of
its member countries for having "unhealthy" levels of nitrate in their
drinking water. But here again, there's no health problem. The medical
evidence says nitrates in the drinking water causes neither stomach cancer
nor the rare-but-famous "blue baby syndrome." That leaves only the
localized problem of algae blooms in surface waters -- hardly a major
concern.

Finally, and perhaps most worrisomely, is the EU's assault against biotech
foods, based on its latest anti-import weapon, the so-called Precautionary
Principle. This now-fashionable "principle" suggests that no country
should have to permit imports of anything until the last remote
possibility that it will endanger health, environment or the social fabric
has been eliminated. It's an open door for non-science-based trade
barriers. So, since 1997, the EU has required a warning label on any food
made from genetically modified material -- though it has not identified
any dangers associated with the products. Not surprisingly, European
retailers, fearful of bad publicity, quickly ditched any products
requiring the biolabel (including a popular canned tomato paste sold by
Sainsbury's, the big British retailer).

All this has serious repercussions for trade. The U.S. and other
agricultural exporters are intensely unhappy with Europe's ongoing attempt
to demonize modern food production before the whole world. U.S. Senator
Richard Lugar, the normally mild-mannered chairman of the Senate
agriculture committee, declared at a recent hearing that the EU position
on farm trade was about to spill over into other policy areas. (He also
sits on the powerful foreign relations committee.)

Trade officials fear the EU will try to make more use of such public
fear-mongering and non-tariff barriers in the future because it has
already agreed to bring down (slowly) the high price supports which have
provided most of its farm protection to date. U.S. cattlemen are pushing
for a "carousel retaliation," which would change the list of
penalty-tariff products every six months, to spread the pain of the EU's
intransigence as broadly as possible.

Just as important as trade issues, however, is the impact of Europe's food
standards on world health. Europe, of course, has plenty of food, but 800
million people elsewhere still go to bed hungry. More than a billion women
and children suffer severe nutritional deficiencies, including vitamin
A-induced blindness, due to their limited diets.

In year 2050 the world may have a peak population of nine billion people
(and one billion more pet cats and dogs) who will need meat and milk on
their tables. The world will then demand nearly three times as much food
as today. It must come either from higher yields or from newly cleared
forests. Hybrid seeds and fertilizer are already widely used. It will take
some major new technology to save the forests. Scientists say the growth
hormones, antibiotics and especially biotechnology will be vital
conservation tools. Here are some examples of the advances now being made:

Mexican researchers have bioengineered the world's first acid-soil crops,
which could boost yields by 50 percent on half the arable land in the
tropics and save huge tracts of the forests.


A Washington State University researcher has recently announced biotech
rice (spliced to a corn gene) with a higher rate of photosynthesis -- and
35% higher yields. This represents by far the biggest rice yield gain in
two decades.


The Rockefeller Foundation and the European Union funded research on
"golden rice," to prevent the severe vitamin A deficiency that kills or
blinds millions of children per year in poor rice cultures. It will also
eliminate the iron deficiency that causes birth complications for a
billion women and their babies. Now the EU has refused to fund follow-up
research to put "golden rice" genes into farmers' varieties.


Biotechnology is also Europe's best hope for reducing the ultra-heavy
pesticide use stimulated by its high price supports, for producing
allergen-free foods, and tasty off-season fruits and vegetables. Europe's
enthusiasm for the Precautionary Principle is already driving its
genetic-research jobs overseas. It could also stifle a big surge in
profitable European farm exports to a richer, arable-land-short Asia in
coming decades. The strategy also seems to throw the EU into a nasty
choice between blocking the membership of new East European farming
countries like Poland and Hungary, or redoubling the costly Euro-mountains
of surplus grain and meat. (The new eastern members won't be content with
second-class farming status after they get in.)
Europe so far seems oblivious to the fact that if the World Trade
Organization indulges Europe's emotional excuse for import barriers, it
will have to do the same for China, the U.S. and every other country. That
gives running room to scaremongers to whip up frenzies in every country
and against other products, with wide-ranging and damaging effects on
world trade. The global economic boom that has been ushered along by the
WTO in recent decades could end abruptly. Indeed, the shock could be as
bad as that from America's Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which helped trigger the
Great Depression of the 1930s.

That's quite a list of prospective achievements for an EU farm policy that
has already lost 25 million small farmers, sponsored the destruction of
the ancient hedgerows, stone fences and peasant cottages that made up
Europe's traditional landscape.

== == ===

Mr. Avery is director of global food issues for the Hudson Institute, and
was formerly the senior agricultural analyst for the U.S. Department of
State.