By John Reifsteck: Champaign, Illinois
If it’s not hard, it’s not worth doing.
U.S. and EU trade diplomats must keep this slogan in mind as they prepare to negotiate a sweeping free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union.
Success would deliver a big boost to economies on both sides of the Atlantic, as phony barriers to the flow of goods, services, and investments come down. Europe is already America’s largest export market, worth about $459 billion last year and supporting about 2.4 million jobs, according to federal statistics.
The good news is that we can do even better: One estimate says that a wise agreement would pump nearly $100 billion to the U.S. economy. It would function like a job-creating stimulus program, without costing taxpayers anything or adding to the national debt.
The bad news is that a few voices are already suggesting that we limit our expectations, especially in agriculture, even before formal talks begin next month. We’re hearing murmurs about how everything would go a lot more smoothly if only we didn’t have to argue about biotechnology.
But argue we must, because genetically modified crops are a fundamental issue for American farmers. This is a fight worth having.
Here in the United States, our science-based regulations approve biotechnology as a safe tool of sustainable agriculture. The technology allows us to grow more crops on less land, helping us feed the world and conserve resources at the same time. The vast majority of our corn, soybeans, and cotton are genetically modified, as they are throughout much of the western hemisphere.
In Europe, however, everything is political, including the regulatory process that controls what products farmers can use. Many scientific groups in Europe, such as Britain’s Royal Society, have endorsed GM crops. So have sensible environmentalists such as Mark Lynas. Yet European governments ignore these recommendations, preferring to let anti-biotech activists drive consumer ignorance and dictate policies.
So GM crops have become a major area of transatlantic disagreement—a non-tariff barrier to healthy commerce in food. The coming round of trade talks represents an excellent opportunity to change this by harmonizing rules and reaching a smart resolution.
We should seize this moment. Rather than running away from a difficult conversation, we should confront it and do our best to persuade Europe on the safety and sustainability of biotechnology.
It may not even be as hard as we fear.
Here’s a secret: Many Europeans actually want the United States to win this dispute.
Don’t get me wrong. Europe’s opposition to GM crops is strong and we should treat it seriously. Yet it may not be as formidable as some officials and pundits would have us believe.
Last November, I traveled to London for an agriculture conference. Its theme was "sustainable intensification of agriculture" but in reality the discussion was about the European regulatory system and how it stifles agriculture production. This politicized regulatory process is making it difficult for Europe to feed itself.
If the meeting had been in the United States, it would have been focused on technical issues, with panels talking about choosing the right seeds, battling weeds, and growing more food. In the London meeting it was obvious that the participants believed the greater challenge to agriculture was politics and unscientific regulation.
Farmers hate this, no matter where we live. We’d rather plant our fields and harvest our crops than fill out piles of paperwork and butt heads with bureaucrats.
An attendee from a European country surprised me with a private conversation: "Please push us on biotechnology." He believes Europe needs to accept GM foods and believes that can occur with pressure from America.
In other words, a number of Europeans understand and appreciate the virtue of GM crops. They’re ready and willing to talk. Along the way, they may make loud complaints about hardheaded American negotiators, but they’ll also budge from their position, make concessions, and allow progress.
Is this an optimistic view? Perhaps. But it makes sense to start these talks with a spirit of hopefulness and a desire to achieve.
When British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the White House last month, he spoke on how the United States and Europe should have wide-ranging conversations on trade: "That means everything on the table, even the difficult issues, and no exceptions."
Let’s take him at his word. Rather than taking biotechnology off the table, let’s make it a centerpiece.
John Reifsteck is a corn and soybean producer in Champaign County Illinois. He volunteers as a Board Member for Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org). Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.