Bad Science Could Kill Global Trade Talks

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Has irresponsibility gone intercontinental? The U.S. government is rightly viewed with global dismay for its broken budget process. As U.S. and European Union trade negotiators continue their talks on a transatlantic free trade pact, Europe is taking actions that could make conclusion of this critical agreement all but impossible.

The outlook for success in these talks started off brighter than for America's last big free trade negotiations -- those that produced the North American Free Trade Agreement. The U.S. and Mexico had never seriously tried to open their border to unimpeded commerce. Both Canada and Mexico had long histories of popular distrust toward their gigantic neighbor. But emotions had tempered over the years and the logic of joining trade ranks ultimately prevailed.

On matters of trade, European public attitudes toward the U.S. have rarely been warmer. In France, long the E.U.'s leader in skepticism toward Americans, nearly two-thirds of citizens now hold a favorable view of the United States. A majority of Germans and Poles support wiping away all trade barriers between Europe and the U.S. Seventy percent of Italians and the British agree. The Economist magazine recently wrote, "A free-trade pact has never had such support in the chancelleries of Europe."

Already both sides have appointed lead negotiators in areas ranging from services and investments to cars and chemicals to electronics and intellectual property. The major theme running through the run-up to these discussions is harmonization of regulations. Tariffs are already low. But regulatory barriers are severe enough that U.S.-approved cars, for example, need special review from Europe before they may be driven on European roads.

With so much emphasis on regulation, it would make sense for both sides to tread carefully in promulgating new rules until they can assess how the trade talks are progressing. But in perhaps the thorniest area for talks - agriculture - Europe has recently gone in exactly the opposite direction.

Agriculture has long been a major arena of U.S.-E.U. contention. Europe's Common Agricultural Policy is regarded with dismay in the United States and much the rest of the world. It is not only expensive but so poorly designed that Europe has gone from a net food exporter to a net importer, that is, dependent on the rest of the world fully to feed its own people.

Recently, Europe has taken new steps in the wrong direction. The European Commission has laid out a set of new rules that could effectively ban a quarter to a third of U.S. agricultural output and keep out U.S.-made products for controlling weeds, funguses and insects.

The United States sets standards for pesticides essential to providing the world's food needs based on scientifically determined levels of safety, then applies a 100 to 1000 fold extra margin of safety, to set the allowed residue. The new European rules would ban the importation of fruits, vegetables and grains when even the tiniest traces of so-called "endocrine disruptors" are detected. I don't pretend to be an expert on this subject, but our scientists tell us that detection methods can now register trace residues in such minute quantities that, as a practical matter, compliance will be all but impossible to achieve.

Worse, the science behind the concept of endocrine disruption is extremely controversial. Many natural as well as man-made substances impact the human endocrine system, including soy, sunlight and sugar. Even exercise can have an influence, though it is clearly not harmful.

That's one reason the editors of eighteen leading scientific journals in the field of chemical hazards recently signed a common editorial protesting the E.U. action. Run in a number of their publications including, for example, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, the editorial accused the commission of acting "contrary not only to science but to the very principles of an enlightened governance and social contract...." The editors warned that, "society itself would pay dearly if unscientific approaches were to undermine our everyday practice of science."

Meanwhile, seventy-three leading scientists in this area put their names to an open letter to the European Commission, protesting that the rules "could rewrite well-accepted scientific and regulatory principles... without adequate scientific evidence."

If the major challenge of the trade negotiations is harmonization of regulations, then promulgating unscientific rules that look like a smokescreen for protectionism could destroy the highly promising talks before they get fully underway.

The E.U should stop playing regulatory games. The future of U.S.-E.U. and indeed global trade depends on each side behaving responsibly.


John Block was U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1981-1986. 

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