Europe hasn't made President Bush's challenging trip to Africa any easier. Last week, the European Parliament adopted a new law on the labeling of genetically-modified foodstuffs which is viewed as a key step towards lifting an EU moratorium on GM products. This move effectively counters attempts by the US to portray the EU ban as anti-trade and, more recently, anti-African. Bush contends that the EU contributes to hunger in Africa by hampering African efforts to use biotechnology to fight food shortages, a claim that infuriates EU members states who point out that they give three times more development aid to Africa than the United States.
With this new development in the EU Parliament, Europe would seem to be telling the US "bring 'em on" not as a barroom taunt but as a formal invitation to GM food products. But if this is the case, why are environmental groups like Greenpeace hailing the law as a "historic victory for consumers"? To understand what's really happening, one must look at the fine print on the invitation.
A critical provision of the new EU law requires food and animal feed to be labeled if it contains at least 0.9 percent of GM ingredients. In other words, the European Parliament is seeking to reframe the entire GM debate in terms of consumers' rights. These are very dangerous terms from the perspective of the US government and biotech industry who fear that European consumers will vote against GM products with their forks if given the chance. Such fears are well-grounded: opinion polls show that 70% of the European public do not want GM food and 94% want to be able to choose whether or not they eat it. What's even more dangerous from the American perspective are the potential effects of the EU's legislation in other parts of the world, the US included. An ABC News survey found that 93% of Americans felt that "the government should require labels on food saying whether or not it has been genetically modified." Consumer advocates look to the new EU law as a model for other countries, including the US and Canada, where such freedom of information is currently denied.
Even in hungry, war-torn Africa, there is growing skepticism about GM crops and their role in African food security. Last year, Zambia's government told aid agencies to refuse thousands of tons of GM corn, preferring to wait for a shipment of unmodified aid. The chorus of skeptics now includes not only development and environmental activists in Africa, but religious organizations . "We do not believe that agro-companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century,'' said the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference in a recent statement. ''On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves." These are tough words for President Bush to stomach as he seeks to win the hearts and minds of Africans this week on the benefits of GM foods.
Roger Doiron is an activist working for sustainable and pleasurable food choices. He has recently started a new non-profit initiative called Kitchen Gardeners International to promote and celebrate the role of home-grown, home-cooked food in a sustainable food system.