Cables released through the controversial website Wikileaks reveal that the US government is trying to enact an aggressive pro-biotech agenda even in the face of entrenched international opposition. The cables in question were written by Craig Stapleton, the US ambassador to France, in 2007. In them, Stapleton advises that the US "reinforce our negotiating position with the EU on agricultural biotechnology by publishing a retaliation list." The list, he continued, should be one that "causes some pain across the EU since this is a collective responsibility."
Citizens of the European Union have been the most vocal in their rejection of genetically modified foods. Four months after GM crops were first approved in Europe, consumer rejection caused most major food companies to commit to going GMO-free. Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, calls this the consumer tipping point, and he's targeting his efforts at reaching a similar tipping point in the US. While GM foods are not banned in Europe, they are required to be labeled. As a result, food manufacturers avoid GM ingredients because consumer preference is so clear.
Most online commentators have expressed shock, dismay or cynical acceptance that the US government would be so deeply in the pocket of the biotech industries. While it is certainly alarming to know that certain people in the federal government are willing to go so far to push a pro-GMO agenda, at the same time I find it encouraging that this was written in 2007 and still, three years later, the EU shows no signs of reversing their anti-GMO position.
In 2009, Germany joined France, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Austria, Poland and Romania in banning Monsanto's Mon 810 GM corn because of its documented hazards to biodiversity and human health. Just this month, the European division of Greenpeace gathered a million signatures on a petition to halt approvals of new GM crops. It's now being considered by the European Commission under a recently enacted statute that allows a million or more citizens to jointly request a change in EU law.
Now that these cables have come out, it will be harder for Monsanto or their allies in government to enact punitive measures against GMO-free advocates without drawing bad publicity and increasing opposition. There are important lessons to learn from the situation in Europe: first of all, though the biotech industry may appear to wield tremendous power and influence, Jeffrey Smith has pointed out that consumer rejection is the one vulnerability they can't control. Monsanto can lobby, pay off and threaten governments around the world to get GM crops approved, but if consumers aren't buying, it won't do them any good.
Secondly, this revelation of a governmental abuse of power only underscores the greater power of concerned citizens. We have the power to stop pro-biotech policy, when we choose to exercise it. We did once, in 1998 when the biotech industry tried to get the USDA to allow GM ingredients to pass organic certification. The proposal was rejected after the USDA received over 275,000 letters of protest, an unprecedented response in USDA history. As a result, organic certification retains a zero-tolerance policy on GM ingredients and buying organic remains one of the best ways to avoid GMOs.
So keep educating yourself, stay engaged and keep spreading the word: GMOs are dangerous at worst, untested at best. To uphold consumer freedom, the US should adopt mandatory labeling laws as soon as possible. For more in depth analysis of the Wikileaks cables and US international policy on GMOs, see Jeffrey Smith's article on The Huffington Post.