Franc to world: eat cake

Posted: May 22, 2003 12:00 AM

The French bid to keep the Iraqi people under the thumb of Saddam Hussein collapsed in failure, but another equally misanthropic Gallic international project is still thriving: suppressing innovations that make it easier for poor countries to feed their people and support their farmers.

This war on genetically modified crops and foodstuffs is as irrational, self-serving and appallingly unconcerned about the plight of Third World people as the French position on Iraq. The ideals that once made France a beacon, "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite," were long ago eclipsed by a different ethic: What's French for "Please, don't bother us with your tiresome mass graves or empty stomachs"?

It is the Bush administration that is again challenging France's self-interested cynicism. At issue is a European Union ban, largely driven by France, on genetically modified agricultural products. Bush took aim at it in a speech Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy, telling Europeans they "should join -- not hinder -- the great cause of ending hunger in Africa."

Genetically modified crops have higher yields than ordinary crops, and nearly miraculous qualities of resistance to disease, pests and drought. They are, in short, a boon to farmers everywhere, but especially to those in Third World countries growing in marginal conditions.

There is no serious scientific debate over the safety of genetically modified food. As Gregory Conko of the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute points out, even the European Union can't doubt its safety anymore. The EU environment minister a few years ago called the ban "illegal and not justified."

In many cases, genetically modified crops are safer than ordinary crops, since the modifications in them are more precise than those made in breeding with wild species. There are also advantages to the environment. One is sheer productivity, which cuts down the area necessary for cultivation. Genetically modified crops can also require less pesticides and less plowing, meaning less runoff.

What should be an ongoing revolution in agriculture, however, has been stymied by the European Union. There is a global system of food production and distribution, and when Europe -- a big, premium market -- demonizes and shuns certain products, it has a ripple effect all over the world.

The United States has slowed its approval of genetically modified crops, because growers worry that mixing new genetically modified crops into the commodity stream will freeze them out of the European market. And it's not just the United States.

Thailand has poured millions of dollars into research on biotech rice, but doesn't dare approve it, because that would end its small exports of rice to Europe. Egypt has had to shy away from genetically modified corn and sweet potatoes. China too has delayed approval of genetically modified crops.

In Africa, countries suffering from famines have even refused U.S. food aid based on worries that genetically modified seeds will get mixed in with their crops and nix any future chance of exporting to Europe, and on paranoia that such crops are unsafe.

"The affluent nations can afford to adopt elitist positions and pay more for the food produced by so-called natural methods," 1970 Nobel Laureate Norman E. Borlaug has said. "The 1 billion chronically poor and hungry people of this world cannot. New technology will be their salvation, freeing them from obsolete, low-yielding and more costly production technology."

The United States is seizing the moral high ground. It has brought a suit at the World Trade Organization against the genetically modified ban, joined by Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Egypt and other developing countries.

The reason for the EU's attachment to the genetically modified ban is a mystery. Perhaps it's cost. If European farmers become more productive, they will gobble up more subsidies. Perhaps it's politics. The European system tends to empower tiny factions, such as the one that hates genetically modified foods. Perhaps it's ego. France might simply enjoy bending the rest of the world to its will.

Whatever the case, France has put itself on the wrong side of yet another powerful moral argument. A few months ago, it was "liberate Iraq," now it's "feed the world."