Think tanks wrap-up II

May 16, 2003 at 5:01 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 16 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the second of several wrap-ups for May 16. Contents: U.S.-EU trade war over genetically modified food; stay-at-home dads.

The Reason Foundation

Biotech warfare: a trade war over genetically modified food

By Ronald Bailey

LOS ANGELES -- The United States is about to lob its first salvo in a new trade war with the European Union . Yesterday U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman announced that the United States is filing a case at the World Trade Organization against the EU's five-year moratorium on importing foods made from genetically modified (GM) crops.

The United States is joined in the suit by Canada, Argentina, and Egypt, who also want to export products made from plant biotechnology into Europe. The Bush administration has been under increasingly heavy pressure from members of Congress to file a WTO case against the EU, since the moratorium is costing U.S. farmers $300 million in export business each year.

The WTO will surely side with the United States against the EU moratorium, since it is supposed to make its decisions under the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement about the appropriateness of health and environmental regulations "based on scientific principles." Such regulations should not be, the rules say, "maintained without sufficient scientific evidence." The EU's moratorium is not based on any scientific evidence that GM crops cause health or environmental problems.

"The EU, for political reasons, has steadfastly refused to follow the advice of their own scientific review committees that have always found that the genetically modified crops are safe and do not pose significant environmental risks," says Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, known as BIO. "That is impermissible under the rules of the WTO."

Giddings is right. Even EU scientific societies like the French Academy of Sciences say that the current criticisms against plant biotechnology are scientifically "unfounded." Last week, Britain's Royal Society reiterated this point and declared "the potential for GM ingredients to reduce the nutritional quality of foods or to cause allergic reactions is in principle no different to that for non-GM ingredients. Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that human health can be damaged by eating DNA sequences created by the genetic modification of foodstuff ingredients."

The Royal Society's vice president and biological secretary, Professor Patrick Bateson, also added, "It is disappointing to find a group like Greenpeace stating on its website that 'the risks are enormous and the consequences potentially catastrophic,' without offering any solid reasons to support such a claim." Disappointing perhaps, but Greenpeace does need a new scare campaign with which to raise money.

EU Health Commissioner David Byrne complained last week that filing a WTO case now would be "eccentric" since the EU is about to adopt regulations that would lift its GM moratorium. Why doesn't the United States just wait for the new regulations?

But the new plant biotechnology regulations are merely a moratorium by other means. The new EU regulations would require labeling of all foods containing one percent or more ingredients from GM foods. The new regulations would also require "dirt to fork" traceability of foods incorporating ingredients made from GM crops.

For example, a cookie made with corn syrup from pest-resistant maize would have to be labeled as containing GM ingredients even though it contains no modified genes at all, just plain old sugars like glucose, dextrose, and maltose. Corn syrup may be bad for your waistline, but genetic engineering doesn't make it any worse or better. In the meantime, the entire supply chain would have to keep and maintain expensive records of exactly where each batch of glucose came from.

However, despite the good news that the United States is finally challenging the EU's crop biotech ban, BIO's Giddings notes: "Leaving the directives on traceability and labeling as they are would make lifting the moratorium moot. In fact, implementing the traceability and labeling directives is an even more effective way of killing trade in biotech food and crops than the moratorium itself."

Even if the United States wins at the WTO, it could still lose. First, the WTO could merely authorize the United States to impose countervailing duties on various European products to punish the EU for violating WTO rules. This already happened in 1999 when the WTO ruled against an EU ban on the import of American beef that had been treated with growth hormone.

The WTO allowed the U.S. to impose $116 million in countervailing duties as damages on various European products. The growth hormone case gives an indication of how the EU is likely to react to a WTO ruling against them on GM crops -- the EU may just accept the countervailing duties and continue to block biotech crop products.

Second, European politicians and bureaucrats could whip up more anti-American fervor by telling their citizens that American corporations are trying to force GM crops down their throats and the throats of their children. European consumers might react by boycotting American imports. After all some in the United States boycotted French products to protest that country's stand on the Iraq War.

And third, a WTO ruling favorable to the United States could imperil the Doha Round of WTO trade negotiations in which the United States is trying to persuade the EU to lower absurdly high agricultural subsidies. These subsidies are more than just economically stupid; they are a moral offense. It's criminal that every cow in Europe gets a subsidy of $2.20 a day—more than the daily income of almost two billion of the world's citizens.

The developed countries pay out over $300 billion in agricultural subsidies annually, undermining the ability of poor farmers in the developing countries to compete. The risk is that wily European politicians and bureaucrats will use a bio trade war with the United States as an excuse to derail the Doha Round.

Finally, the EU could claim that it has lifted its moratorium and will import biotech foods under its new regulations. As we've seen, those regulations amount to another moratorium that the United States will have to challenge before the WTO later.

But if the U.S. doesn't actually use the WTO trade adjudication mechanisms to prevent countries from erecting non-tariff trade barriers like the EU's biotech ban, then why have a WTO at all? The United States has been patient with the EU on this issue. It's time the agency filed the case.

(Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent.)

Cover boys: Newsweek notices stay-at-home dads

By Jeff Taylor

LOS ANGELES - Wow, I'm finally famous. Or at least I'm part of a hot media demographic of a fleeting moment, like soccer moms or pedophile priests.

Newsweek's recent cover story overflies the phenomenon of men who stay at home to take care of the kids while mom goes out to earn a paycheck. Although the article unearths some interesting data, we'll likely have to wait for the next confluence of a topical Eddie Murphy flick ("Daddy Day Care") and Mother's Day for an account that escapes old zero-sum, gender-war framing.

First, the good news. Newsweek tells me there is a new focus on finding out just how many dads now take care of home and hearth as their primary job. Just five years ago, when I quit my job to stay home with my new son, wild guesses were the norm. Hard data are always better, whatever the topic.

The piece is also broader than Fortune's "Trophy Husband" cover from last fall which more or less confirmed that even a high-powered corporate woman needs a good corporate wife. Fortune's focus on the boardroom also skewed things toward the 50-ish husband who didn't so much quit a job as cash out his chips to play at his hobbies and whose child-care responsibilities might be no more than a pancake breakfast for the youngest daughter home for spring break.

Newsweek gets bonus points for promulgating the "Alpha Earner" tag, given to women who earn more than their spouse. The Alphas now describe one-third of all married households. And despite snarky comments about these women being "bred for the office," this shift in earning power is something the public needs to know.

You might think this would be a good jumping off point to challenge notions about the glass ceiling or at least note that if so many women are out-earning their men, they must be getting equal pay for equal work somewhere. But you'd be wrong.

Instead, Newsweek trudges through the old victimhood vignette storyline news magazines love to show us -- farms foreclosed, steelworkers bagging groceries, Wal-Mart walloping ma-and-pa. Here the story takes the terrifying guise of proud men thrown out of work and forced to stay home while their wives hold down a job.

"I hate it all," is the out-of-work dad's quote that closes the opening paragraph. Readers very quickly called foul on that set-up, noting that a forced layoff is not the same situation as a careful family decision undertaken with the consent of all parties.

Much more interesting than keeping score in the blame and pain game would seem to be the fact that at-home dads represent a challenge to the existing orthodoxies about family life. In fact, maybe it is at-home dads' dual threat to left and right that keeps both sides from much talking to them.

By their mere existence, at-home dads deny the reductio ad absurdum of radical feminist arguments about unfair burdens of child-rearing. In the vernacular, "Temper-tantrum in the shoe store, huh? I got that plus two HAZMAT poopy diapers this A.M. and an abandoned sippy cup growing head-cheese under the couch. Who's oppressed by the patriarchy now, hun?"

Conservatives are equally unequipped to handle the daddy-at-home fix to all the various pathologies they ascribe to the social superflu of Women Entering the Workforce. In fact, "parent" is almost universally taken to mean "mom" when conservatives lament parental absence from the home.

Writing in Policy Review, Mary Eberstadt lays everything from childhood obesity to teen sex at the feet of mom's going off to work. How about if dad stays at home and runs the horny little pudge balls to the park? Well, maybe next year then. You could even argue—although I wouldn't—that keeping the menfolk at home is a profoundly conservative reaction to threats like snipers and stalkers and snatchers, oh my.

So if the left-right dichotomy doesn't help explain what is going on, what does? If we have to grossly oversimplify all complexities of family life -- and we do, because it is fun -- to come up with a sloppy, catchy metaphor, I'd borrow one from sports: Playing out of position.

When Magic Johnson, subbing for an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, scored 42 points and gave the Lakers a championship in 1980, it wasn't because he suddenly preferred Jabbar's center position to point guard. He made the switch and embraced it because the switch gave his team its best shot at being successful. Nor did Magic sacrifice anything, as the position switch provided him the best chance to secure his top goal, winning.

Presumably men who choose to stay home do so because they believe it gives their families the best shot at flourishing despite millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of culture to the contrary. This weight of history will keep most at-home dads feeling out of position for the foreseeable future even as they strive to do what's best for their particular brood.

But that's life. More specifically, that's human life. It is no one's fault that members of the species homo sapiens are pretty much helpless until age seven or eight, unable to perform the most basic function without a good chance of utter disaster. Not until 13 or 14 are they good for any meaningful work; complete command of charge cards and sexual organs doesn't come until age 25, if at all.

So parents have a tough task. Throwing another possible division of labor into the mix has to be a net good for families even if it doesn't fit into a neat category on the left-right continuum or editorial templates. Ultimately, pragmatism -- what works best for each family -- is death to the dogmas of both left and right. As Michael Keaton told Martin Mull in Mr. Mom, "Yeah, 220, 221 -- whatever it takes."

Here's to whatever it takes.

(Jeff Taylor writes Reason Express, Reason magazine's weekly review of the news.)

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