Much has been made of the Bush administration's determination to refuse to cooperate with the international community on issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to global warming to race relations. And, of course, these are all appropriate concerns. But the Bush team's rejection of the global consensus extends far beyond those high-profile issues, and it is often more damaging to initiatives that lack the sort of attention drawn by the Kyoto Accord and the United Nations Conference on Racism.
Consider, for instance, recent moves by the Bush administration to undermine the global movement for labeling genetically modified foods. The rest of the world takes very seriously the question of whether food products should be genetically altered to make them prettier, or bigger, or - as is usually the motivation - cheaper for processors to produce.
The more people learn what is being done to their food by multinational corporations in the name of convenience and profit, the more they object. Those objections have led to dramatic shifts in public policy in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, where nations have enacted laws requiring that food products that have been genetically modified - or that contain genetically modified ingredients - be labeled as such.
These requirements are extremely popular in Europe, and in American communities where strong "safe food" consciousness - as evidenced by our fine restaurants and co-ops, the annual Food for Thought festival and, of course, the Farmers' Market - has created a constituency for organic products from small farms and responsible processors. Wherever labeling has been broadly employed - either by law in Europe or in food co-ops in the United States - consumer purchasing patterns have dramatically shifted, as most folks reject genetically modified foods in favor of organic and traditionally produced items.
With its close ties to agribusiness conglomerates, however, the Bush administration is no friend of labeling. Labeling initiatives in the United States, such as a very good proposal from U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, languish in Congress. And on the international scene the United States is fast becoming the No. 1 foe of labeling.
The Bush administration is reportedly taking steps to withdraw from the international Biosafety Protocol, an agreement in which the Clinton administration acknowledged growing concerns about genetic modification of food. And last week, senior Bush aides were pressuring the European Union to drop a plan to require that foods sold on the continent carry labels identifying any genetically modified contents. The United States, a leader in agricultural biotechnology experimentation and one of the world's most aggressive exporters of genetically modified foods, objected to the labeling purely for commercial reasons.
The Bush administration is claiming that the European Union's labeling law violates the World Trade Organization's free-trade protections - since it would require that American food products shipped to Europe carry information that, in all likelihood, would cause European consumers to avoid purchasing those products. That's probably true, but it does not excuse the Bush administration's wrongminded approach.
Using international trade policy to force other countries to allow deceptive sales of products that their consumers do not want is an unwise approach that ultimately will give all U.S. food products a bad name internationally. In the end, it will do tremendous damage to the interests of American farmers who produce safe, healthful foods but who will be tarnished with the "unsafe food" brush because of the Bush administration's wrongminded policies.
Like so many of the Bush camp's international interventions, its food fight is already going sour. European parliamentarians are talking about answering the Bush administration's pressure with tighter restrictions on genetically modified imports - raising the prospect of a serious trade war. Says Charles Margulis, a leading campaigner for safe food in Europe: "The U.S. is trying to force-feed modified foods to the rest of the world, and it just isn't going to work."
Copyright 2001 The Capital Times