Some of the most contentious issues confronting agriculture in the early 21st century emanate from the lab in the form of genetically altered crops.
There are environmental concerns. What will the new life forms do to the environment? Other issues are more political. Who will own and govern this new means of production? These questions are currently in full play in a continuing trans-Atlantic debate.
Since 1998, the European Union has blocked the approval of new varieties of genetically modified organisms. Over those four years, American farmers, and the companies that provide their seeds, have been waiting for the E-U to change its policy while watching millions of dollars in prospective revenue slip away.
To stop the damage, a triumvirate of The American Farm Bureau, seven U.S. Senators and the Secretary of Agriculture has begun calling for action from the Bush administration. The group wants the White House to remind the European Union of its trading obligations and approve G-M varieties created after 1998 for importation. Suggested remedies for the problem include going to the World Trade Organization push the E-U to drop what the Farm Bureau has called unfair and unscientific barriers to trade.
Advising the White House against pushing too hard are members of the State Department who fear the case may cause relations with European nations to deteriorate. Even so, various lobbying groups are concerned that failing to go all the way to the WTO opens the door for similar legislation to be enacted by other countries.
Even if the E-U starts to approve new seeds, there is still the problem of the European consumer's perception that G-M-O's are somehow fundamentally different. Those perceptions will likely be affected by a new labeling scheme recently proposed by the European Union Agriculture Committee. Currently, a product must be labeled as containing G-M-Os if it used more than 1% of genetically engineered ingredients in its creation. Under the new policy this standard is ratcheted down to .9% (point nine percent). And in another change from current policy, any finished goods whose raw ingredients were genetically engineered but went through extensive processing must also be listed. An example would be soybeans crushed to make food grade soy oil. Even though studies by various independent agencies have determined none of the genetic material present in the raw bean remains in highly processed goods the Committee wants consumers to be made aware.