Health, science, business and consumer rights are driving major differences between the U.S. and the EU in the most far-reaching trade negotiations in history.
MUNICH — Jack Bobo was on a mission when he entered the windowless meeting room in Washington. The message he delivered this spring was a simple one: Only genetic engineering can heal the rift between agriculture and the environment. But this could only happen if people first began to accept genetic engineering. "The apple," he declares, "is the product that may be able to sway consumers."
Bobo, however, is required to voice such opinions since he is a lobbyist for the U.S. genetic engineering company Intrexon, which dabbles in medical supplies as well as agricultural solutions. His eyes light up while describing so-called Arctic Apples, which are apples that do not oxidize when cut. They are also the first genetically modified apple of the Granny Smith variety nearly ready for release, and its flesh is as white as the eternal ice of the Arctic.
Is this a dream come true, or our worst nightmare? To consumers within the European Union, it is a horrifying thought, just as much as is the importing of meat from animals whose growth has been amplified through the use of hormones. Both of these types of products are widely prohibited within the EU. According to the responsible European authorities, it is unclear what could be the consequences to human health after consuming these products. Further reasons include the possibly detrimental consequences to the environment. But in the U.S. genetically modified food and hormone-treated meat are mass-produced products and American producers want to now sell these items in Europe, with the help of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed free trade agreement that could be the most far-reaching in history.
The confidential papers obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitungand the German radio and television stations WDR and NDR, which reveal details of the TTIP negotiations, demonstrate that risk evaluation is a central point of contention in these ongoing talks; two very different approaches to this topic being at the heart of the debate. In the U.S., the scientific principle reigns supreme, meaning that a product is considered safe until the opposite can be proven to be true. Europe on the other hand follows the prevention principle which can prompt bans to be passed even if only the slightest hint of possibly detrimental consequences exists.
The documents demonstrate, for the first time, how invested the U.S. is in annulling the prevention principle. The scientific principle is stressed in several places, such as where hygiene regulations are concerned. The U.S. demands that when "undertaking a risk assessment appropriate to the circumstances, each party shall ensure that it takes into account â€¦ the relevant available scientific evidence." The EU does not exactly reject this proposal but insists on "preserving each Party's right to protect human, animal or plant life and health in its territory and respecting each Party's regulatory systems, risk assessment, risk management and policy development processes."
But what exactly is the scientific principle? "It does, initially, sound very sensible but it hides a perfidious concept which is supposed to enable companies to halt any regulatory legislation processes," says Bärbel Höhn of the Green Party. The impending ban of a product could therefore be prevented, based on the fact that not enough scientific evidence that relates to its potential dangers has yet come to light. In fact, the U.S. feels that there is a need for both "parties â€¦ to strengthen their cooperation in the field of standards, technical regulations, and conformity assessment procedures to reduce and eliminate unnecessary technical barriers to trade." Translated into plain English this means that bans that are not based on the scientific principle are "unnecessary technical barriers to trade," and that these need to be reduced and eliminated.
Höhn fears that laws regarding health and safety protection at work, as well as consumer or environmental protection regulations, may be weakened or delayed indefinitely by applying this approach.
Christoph Then of "Testbiotech," which is critical of genetic engineering, adds that "most people imagine independent research upon hearing the term "scientific principle," but that is not the case. The documents that we evaluate for licensing of genetically modified plants lack independent verification." The most important goal seems to be to develop new technologies, he adds. But at the same time, the concept of protection is being neglected. This constitutes a problem in Then's eyes, seeing as American producers will enter the market with a large number of new developments in plant and animal husbandry in the coming years. According to American wishes, the modalities for the licensing of "modern agricultural technologies" is to be anchored in the TTIP agreement. The U.S. further demands "to develop an approach or set of approaches to manage low-level presence in order to reduce unnecessary disruptions affecting trade," meaning that, if in doubt, potential risks should be evaluated quickly rather than thoroughly.
The EU Commission continues to deny that the prevention principle is in danger due to the pressure applied by the U.S., but perusal of the papers obtained highlights that the licensing of genetically modified food or hormone-treated meat has not been ruled out at any point. The U.S. Minister of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, continuously stresses how little he thinks of the European stance, saying that "it will hinder trade, if food stuffs are not licensed based on scientific evidence but based on the demands placed upon it by politicians."
The constitutional judge Peter-Tobias Stoll, who is based in the central German city of Göttingen, is of the opinion that the topic of risk evaluation is a decisive one. He thinks the fear of weakened consumer protection voiced by so many who are opposed to the TTIP agreement is indeed justified. "It seems impossible to me that any standard will escape being lowered at some point in the future," says Stoll. "I am, frankly, quite surprised to see how adamant the U.S. is in anchoring American regulatory procedures in the TTIP agreement."
Critics also fear reductions in standards for food labelling. In the EU every ingredient that has been produced from genetically modified organisms has to be clearly labeled on the packaging. But the U.S. refuses to accept this practice as they consider it to be detrimental to trade, which will result in unnecessary costs and may be misconstrued as a warning label. American consumer protection organizations have been demanding explicit labeling of genetically modified foods in the United States for years and criticize this practice of non-declaration in the U.S. as non-existing transparency. They have, however, been unsuccessful in achieving this due to the fact that agricultural companies spend millions of dollars on campaigns to prevent such labeling.
"The experiences that our American colleagues have had show that consumer protection regulations are often trapped in limbo," affirms Klaus Müller, chairman of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.