The GMO Problem: Health and Trade

Dr. Christopher Binetti is an adjunct professor of Political Science and History at Middlesex County College. He has a Master's Degree in political Science from Rutgers-Newark and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Maryland-College Park. He is currently working on two new scholarly journals, the New Jersey Journal of Politics and the Journal of History and Politics.    Email: cbinetti@terpmail.umd.edu

Dr. Christopher Binetti is an adjunct professor of Political Science and History at Middlesex County College. He has a Master's Degree in political Science from Rutgers-Newark and a PhD in Political Science from the University of Maryland-College Park. He is currently working on two new scholarly journals, the New Jersey Journal of Politics and the Journal of History and Politics.

Email: cbinetti@terpmail.umd.edu

It is easy to say that we should ban GMOs altogether or that we need them for US business. But have you ever considered the trade agreements that pertain to this underlying problem? It’s not just a health issue anymore.  

GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) are any non-human living thing that has been genetically manipulated in some way. It can be crops, like corn and soy beans or it can be animals like livestock. It can be pets, which can be cloned legally and then purchased in the United States. It can even be bacteria. While not all GMOs are the same morally and economically, there are few that are actually beneficial to the world. Genetically-engineered bacteria whose job is to eat the chemicals from an oil spill to clean them up, are among the only exceptions. In truth, GMOs are often harmful but rarely helpful.

Yet, Monsanto and other GMO-producing biotech firms are able to assert their power and influence to obscure the truth. They fund friendly scientific studies that create false scientific consensus that GMOs are safe. In member countries of the European Union, where GMO-producing biotech firms are less powerful and influential, the scientific studies have tended to show that GMOs are harmful to human health and even, potentially, to the environment. That said, the issue with GMOs is not just the known harm but the potential harm that it could do.

The European Union uses the precautionary principle is used. The precautionary principle is the idea that where potential harm presents itself, the government is allowed to intervene to protect human and animal health and the environment. In the United States and Canada, the harm principle, which is associated with British moral philosophy, predominates. The harm principle states that governments, in general, may not outlaw something unless it is shown to harm or is likely to harm humans, animals, and the environment. It is a much higher standard of proof for governments to overcome. It is not merely a legal principle, it is a moral and constitutional one that undergirds the very different traditions in the US and Canada versus France and Italy, for example.

However, the precautionary principle is not necessarily as radical as we might think. For example, human cloning is strictly prohibited in the US. Since it has never been perfected, clearly only potential harm is being examined. Also, human genetic manipulation for non-therapeutic reasons is also strictly prohibited. Truthfully, we sometimes use the precautionary principle already. Also, just because we adopt the precautionary principle on GMOs does not force us to use the principle in all aspects of public life. European Union member countries pick and choose when to apply the precautionary principle versus the harm principle; they simply tend to use the precautionary principle more often. 

However, the precautionary principle is not the only reason to abandon GMOs. While Canada largely agrees with the production and use of GMOs now, it is likely to change its position due to CETA, a trade agreement between Canada and the EU as a trading bloc.  Canada right now is being pulled in two directions. It just negotiated the USMCA which is essentially an improved NAFTA, but it also must abide by the CETA. Without Canada’s economic and diplomatic support, America is significantly more isolated in the developed world. We simply cannot lose Canada to the orbit of the EU trading bloc.

The best way to eliminate this problem is to negotiate with both Canada and the EU to join the CETA. The negotiations will be difficult but pledging to eventually eliminate GMOs is a huge step towards such a comprehensive agreement. It is not merely a sign of good faith to the various European countries, but it also makes it easier to eliminate non-tariff trade barriers, the largest of which is the GMO issue. Admittedly, the EU would have to give a few concessions as well. First of all, it would have to agree to allowing the US and Canada gradually eliminate GMOs, while be able to expect mandatory labelling of GMO products immediately. Next, it would only be able to demand the complete elimination of GMO exports if its members agree to completely stop cultivating and breeding GMOs. The same rules for GMO imports to a country would also apply to GMO exports and GMO products produced in that country. More importantly, the EU would agree not to force any member country to ban GMOs.

Essentially the GMO agreement, either in a pre-free trade agreement protocol or in the free trade agreement itself, would provide for consistent and fair treatment concerning GMOs to ensure that the European Union neither protects members from free trade nor forces members to abandon GMOs. The procedure should be fair and consistent, and the process should be gradual, but the aim is the eventual elimination of all consumed GMOs in the signatory countries. 

However, if health and safety arguments do not convince you to support gradually eliminating GMOs and labelling them immediately for consumer protection and the economic benefits of free trade with the rest of the developed world does not get you on board, there is the national security argument. The EU is not a country or state. However, its governing body, the European Commission, and many of its member countries, view the US with great suspicion. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the current President. However, there are long-term resentments, jealousies, and worries that have led the EU countries to isolate themselves from the US. 

More importantly, our economy will be more compatible with those of the EU member countries and Canada, allowing us to join the CETA trade agreement and begin to reduce non-tariff trade barriers with both the EU and Canada. We do not need to be an unnecessary outlier when it comes to our economy. We need to integrate economically with our peers. We need our allies to remember our shared values and if we must get rid of GMOs gradually to sure up our standing in the world, then it is worth the serious short-term economic consequences.