The US-EU trade deal could take Monsanto’s GM crops off the table
A debate over food standards with the largest US trading partner could affect what Americans are eating for dinner
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 May 2013 14.30 BST
As President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron stood smiling for the cameras at a press conference on free trade this week, a secret lurked behind them: the average American couldn’t care less about whether the US has a good trade deal with Europe, or whether Europeans buy our products or we buy theirs. With over 12 million unemployed people at home, no one’s worried about whether we have enough ripe cheese from France or beer from Germany.
Yet a confluence of events over the past week shows that Cameron’s visit is important to Americans. One of the things he and other leaders will be negotiating are what kinds of American food they want brought into their countries cheaply.
Here’s why what Europe wants matters: the EU, which loathes American food safety practices, could, by exerting pressure on the negotiations, actually end up improving the quality or variety of food available to Americans.
Right now, the American food supply is an issue of perpetual controversy. Hormones in meat and milk have many families – at least those who can afford organic options – rushing to pay more for a sense of safety.
The US food supply lacks variety: only a few crops dominate and major companies determine the extent and quality of the food supply – and they often prefer genetically modified seeds, bred to withstand herbicides but not fully tested in their long-term effect on human health. As the Guardian reported: "three big companies now control more than half of the global seed market.. … the average cost of planting an acre of soybeans had risen 325% between 1995 and 2011."
Not surprisingly, this corporate pressure has induced American agriculture to favor the kind of crops that corporations can best control: genetically modified crops. About 93% of the soybean seeds in the United States are genetically modified, along with 88% of corn, 94% of cotton and 90% of sugarbeets, which provide about 54% of the sugar sold in America, as the HuffPo’s blog has pointed out. McDonald’s, one of the biggest buyers of potatoes, has an outsize influence on the shape of the US potato supply. This week, one of its major potato processors, JR Simplot, raised the possibility of growing genetically modified potatoes again.
A lot is at stake: the EU is a powerful economic force and the US’s most important trading partner, and this potential trade deal is an important one. It is worth at least $97bn to the United States and as much as $132bn to the rest of the world.
The sheer dollar value of a trade agreement – think of all those lovely dollars that we could use to boost our anemic GDP – means that the EU has financial clout in the US.
In fact, the EU has enough clout to finally convince the US government to clean up America’s food supply, long given over to factory farming and the economic demands of agribusiness. If America wants to export more beef, chicken and crops to the European Union, it will have to make better products. The EU won’t stand for the ones we’re peddling now.
The EU looks down on American food safety and production practices, and with good reason. American meat production is heavily reliant on chemicals, from hormones to chlorine-bleach baths, and European officials and consumers largely reject these treatments and standards.
American farmers and food industry officials find this European exactitude on food practices bewildering, as captured in the comment of Ron Frye, the marketing manager for a Montana ranch, when talking with the Financial Times: "If it’s good enough for us it ought to be good enough for them."
The US government is friendly to agribusiness interests; from the supreme court to the State Department, it’s hard to find a government department hostile to corporate interests like those of, say, Monsanto. Yesterday, Monsanto won a supreme court case that allowed it to claim a patent on its genetically modified seeds no matter how farmers came by them. The justices ruled that whether farmers come across Monsanto seeds in grain silos, as useless among feed, or from third parties, the company must be paid for its patented seeds.
Monsanto also spurred a legislative provision preventing the government from taking action to stop genetically modified seeds, even if they were found to be harmful to the health of consumers. The GM giant’s influence also seems to reach into the State Department, where officials travel the world singing the praises of genetically modified crops.
As Wenonah Hauter, the head of Food and Water Watch, wrote for the Guardian this week:
"We have spent months looking at the extent to which the US State Department is working on behalf of the GM seed industry to make sure that biotech crops are served up abroad whether the world wants them or not."
Her organization, scanning 900 diplomatic cables, found the State Department encouraging US embassies across the world to "pursue an active biotech agenda" and "encourage the use of agricultural biotechnology."
With the support of the government, Monsanto is a key force in American agriculture. Its sells a popular and powerful herbicide, Roundup, alongside the only seeds that are really resistant to it: soybeans named Roundup Ready, for which it charges twice the price of normal seeds. Strong herbicide has led, predictably, to stronger superweeds; now Monsanto is creating seeds that are resistant to even more powerful weedkillers.
The US Department of Agriculture dealt Monsanto a rare blow merely by insisting that its new seeds – the ones resistant to powerful herbicides – require at least another year of examination for safety. The delay was met with surprise.
In the US, Big Agriculture calls the shots; the European Union argues that it shouldn’t. A trade deal would be the testing ground for a battle over food standards to play out.
The EU has little love for Monsanto or other chemical companies with a stake in agribusiness, like Germany’s BASF. The EU has approved only two genetically modified crops – corn from Monsanto and potatoes from BASF. Even those modest approvals have met cultural roadblocks. Around eight EU, including France, Italy and Poland, have taken steps to ban Monsanto’s GM corn. BASF, after seeking approvals for three of its potato varieties in Europe, gave up trying after a regulatory quest that took nearly four years.
All of which tells us that if the US wants to export more agricultural products through its trade agreement with the EU, things are probably going to have to change here, as well.