RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Wikileaks has so far released just a fraction of the total 251,287 United States embassy cables in its possession, but the documents currently available provide interesting insights into how aggressively the U.S. State Department is pushing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) abroad.
THE DETAILS: In one cable, an unnamed State Department official tells a Pakistan finance minister, who notes that drought and water issues remain a primary barrier to increasing the country's agricultural capacity, that "the integration of genetically modified seeds is critical to increasing agricultural productivity." The official then requested "enhanced U.S.–Pakistan collaboration" on biotechnology research.
State Department officials have also been fighting the European Union's tight labeling restrictions on GMOs, as evidenced by cables involving Spanish and Austrian officials and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. GMOs are described as "a subject of considerable domestic concern in France," according to one cable dated 2007. Soon after taking office, Sarkozy considered a moratorium on GMOs that "would significantly undermine U.S. agricultural exports to Europe. We believe President Sarkozy may support the politically popular moratorium in order to gain capital to use in his reform efforts." A cable describing the current (as of August 2009) political climate in Austria notes that the country's ban on GMOs is just one of its overall "isolationist, anti-EU, and anti-U.S. positions."
Such European push-back has led U.S. GMO advocates to seek the help of Europe's few GMO sympathizers. One of the released cables describes a meeting between Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Thune (R-S.D.) and two officials from Spain, which is one of the only European countries currently growing genetically modified crops (Poland is the other). One of the Spanish officials noted that Spain "had a relatively 'liberal' view with respect to biotechnology. However, even in Spain, the technology was controversial and faced NGO opposition." The two senators then asked "what influence Spain could exercise in Brussels [the de facto capital of the European Union] on the issue," to which the Spanish officials responded "commodity price hikes might spur greater liberalization to biotech imports."
Finally, the cables reveal that Africa is a potential goldmine for U.S. biotech companies that are trying to find new markets for their products. In one cable, among the priorities for intelligence officials in Burundi, the Congo, and Rwanda is gathering information on "government acceptance of genetically modified food and propagation of genetically modified crops."
WHAT IT MEANS: Biotech firms like Monsanto are trying to get their products into as many corners of the globe as possible and are using politicians to pave the way. That's probably not surprising to many people, and it's certainly nothing new for Michael Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Consumers Union (which publishes Consumer Reports), who's been following international food politics for quite some time. "We've been fighting the State Department for years over this," he says. For 18 years, the State Department and its colleagues in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's foreign agriculture service have been trying to weaken international regulations on the labeling of genetically modified foods, particularly in the European Union, which has adopted a zero-tolerance policy on GMOs, he says. And now, they've turned their attention to Africa. "Africa is seen as a continent that's been left behind and needs help—it's good PR stuff for them," he says. "But Africa doesn't particularly want it."