Don't hold your breath, Secretary Vilsack

I was struck by this passage in a Sunday Des Moines Register feature on Iowans in key posts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

[USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service administrator Michael] Michener declined to discuss the department’s strategy for promoting international acceptance of biotechnology, saying it’s still in the works. But he argues that the Obama administration can be more effective than the Bush administration, which went to the World Trade Organization to unsuccessfully break European resistance to the genetically engineered crops.

Vilsack is taking a lighter approach, Michener said, recounting a discussion the secretary had with his German counterpart.

Vilsack “made this very creative argument on how during the eight years of the Bush administration, the Europeans would lecture us on how we had to bring our citizens along and educate them on the science of climate change. He turned that around and said, ‘You know, you’ve got a similar responsibility on biotech’” Michener said.

That certainly is a “creative” analogy. Getting Americans on board with serious policies on climate change may be our only hope for avoiding a catastrophic global warming scenario. Gaining European acceptance for genetically-modified crops has no comparable global benefit (no, these crops won’t magically end world hunger).

But a more important point is after the jump.

I don’t expect Vilsack’s “lighter approach” to make much headway in Europe, where I lived for a decade. British government ministers (Conservative before May 1997 and Labour afterwards) weren’t opposed to GMO foods. The problem was, the government had no credibility with worried consumers and grocery store chains after the “mad-cow disease” debacle.

The British beef industry never fully recovered after the government admitted in 1996 that a fatal neurodegenerative disease, variant CJD, was linked to the similar “mad-cow disease” called BSE. For years government officials had denied there was any health risk in the feeding and slaughtering practices that spread BSE in cows and allowed the disease agent into the human food supply. Many countries immediately cut off British beef exports, and demand for red meat dropped sharply within the UK.

Once a critical mass of consumers reject a food product, I don’t think government can save it. The market for dairy products from hormone-treated cows continues to decline in the U.S., even though government officials have always told us not to worry about that.  

Instead of focusing on getting Europeans to accept biotech methods, U.S. officials should acknowledge their legitimate concerns about GMO technology. As Jill Richardson has written,

We need to be DARN SURE that a GMO is safe before we allow it. And think about this: the entire world takes the risk, but only the biotech company reaps the profit. In other words, they are in a position to be much less risk-averse than they ought to be about their own products.

But who am I kidding? Vilsack threw in his lot with the biotech companies years ago, and those firms have been blocking independent academic research on the impact of genetically-modified organisms in the environment (see also here).

If GMOs are ever conclusively linked to a human health problem or environmental catastrophe, U.S. agricultural exports could collapse. If I were Vilsack, I would be concerned about that possibility. On the other hand, if the biotech companies and their allies succeed in spreading this technology globally, then skeptics like the Europeans will have nowhere to go for food produced without GMOs, no matter what the research shows.

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