Unhealthy Horse Trading

Will we soon get hormone steaks and schnitzel, chlorine chicken and Gentec breakfast cereal in Europe, too? If the United States gets its way, the U.S.-EU free trade agreement will force us to accept all sorts of genetically altered food in the European Union. That’s too high a price to pay for making it easier for Germany to export cars to America.

Chancellor Merkel reassures us and the European Union appeases us. Lower our consumer, animal and environmental protection standards just because somebody on the other side of the Atlantic wants to produce and export more genetically modified steak, schnitzel, chlorine-saturated chicken and genetically altered cornflakes to Europe? Not with us. “We won’t simply lower our standards,” promises the chancellor in one of her podcasts. But then comes the kicker that sets the world on fire: “Both sides must make acceptable compromises.”

So that means a free trade agreement will be marked by classic horse trading that might come at the consumer’s expense. An agreement reached in the hope that no one looks too closely at it because the details of the trans-Atlantic agreement are complicated and the core message is that thousands of new jobs will be created if we just do away with trade barriers and cut tariffs to zero. But maybe this unwieldy subject — where the U.S. gets to sell us more agricultural goods and Germany gets to sell more cars in America — deserves a second look. Then doubts about this trans-Atlantic liberalization begin to creep in.

More or Less Just Waved Through

Then you discover that the U.S. Monsanto Corporation’s retreat out of Europe last summer takes on a new meaning: Pretend that you’ve accepted being rebuffed by the European consumer so that you can return via the back door. That comes about because with a trade agreement, the production standards of both partners are placed on an equal footing.

What Ends Up on the European Dinner Plate

If everything goes as planned, then a newly developed genetically modified corn, resistant to every possible weed killer and pesticide, would need only be approved for sale in the United States and to be just waved across European borders automatically, whether it comes in as cornflakes or seed corn. There are many more little doors: Genetically modified peanuts could wind up in European supermarkets without the necessity of even labeling them as being genetically modified. Or companies could argue that exclusion or labeling of products constitute an illegal restraint of trade by the EU. It could be that during the negotiating process, the European Union will be talked out of its precautionary principles if it tries to erect such barriers.

A Horror for the Enlightened European Consumer

At least, that’s what worries critics who will attend Berlin’s fourth “Green Week” this coming Saturday to express their concerns. For them, it’s no longer just about the excesses of domestic agriculture, such as giving antibiotics to animals or the use of toxins on the fields; it’s now also about warning of the Americanization of European agriculture.

The American agrarian landscape hardly appeals to the tastes of enlightened European consumers. Over there, a handful of clans control everything. Example: Milk, where 30 to 40 families control the entire market from stalls containing 30,000 cows each. Thirty thousand — in Germany, that figure represents the dividing line between farm-raised animals and industrial-style agriculture; and that applies to chickens, not dairy cows.

In the United States, about 90 percent of corn and soybean fields are sown with genetically modified varieties. Two percent of farmers account for one-half the total agricultural production. These cattle barons and corn farmers now threaten to invade the European market. You only need recognize the fact that the emissaries of American agriculture eagerly tell this to anyone willing to believe them. They threaten: Without compromise, without concessions on hormone-treated meat, they would never sign any sort of trade agreement and that would be the death knell for new jobs and other fantasies held by EU trade agreement proponents.

This Isn’t About Plastics or Metal

EU trade agreement proponents go forth and preach the agreement with shining eyes: This will allow VW and Daimler-Benz to export cars to America without having to redesign every turn signal or outside mirror. But when it comes to foodstuffs, we’re not talking about metal and plastic — we’re talking about life, public health and eating enjoyment.

The principal danger lies in the fact that politicians, dazzled by external pressures and the illusion of job creation and economic growth through free trade, may end up sacrificing consumers, domestic animals and nature itself. In an era where many people are demanding more — not less — protection for animals, and at a time when the international community concerns itself with promoting biodiversity, this is a new threat of decreased control. But Europe cannot allow itself to become the American agriculture industry’s playground.

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