Dawning of the age of Frankenfuels

Will consumers turn up their noses at genetically modified energy crops?

Published November 27, 2006 7:41PM (EST)

The World Trade Organization's final decision on the dispute between the U.S. and the European Union over the importation of genetically modified organisms into the E.U. clocks in at 1,148 pages, reportedly the longest ruling in the history of the WTO. Following up on the preliminary decision released by the WTO in February, a panel of judges found that between 1998 and 2003, the E.U. had been operating a "de facto moratorium" blocking GMOs. The ruling did not say that the E.U. cannot ban GMOs on scientific grounds. Instead, it declared that the E.U. had been engaging in "undue delay" in processing import applications, and that individual E.U. countries were wrong to ban products that the E.U. had declared safe.

Now the battle will commence on whether all those words mean anything. On Nov. 21, the E.U. declined to appeal the ruling, arguing that changes made to the application process in 2004 made the ruling moot. In a gorgeous example of passive-aggressive trade diplomacy, European Commission trade spokesman Peter Power stated that "The European Commission has decided not to appeal the GMO decision as the current regulatory provisions are not in any way affected by the judgment... "The impact of that judgment is entirely of historical interest."

The U.S., Canada, Argentina and Brazil, which dominate the world's production of genetically modified crops, will no doubt beg to differ. Canada is already crowing over the news that the E.U. won't appeal, announcing that the decision will result in a boom in canola exports to the E.U.

This is where it gets interesting. Until now, the main factor explaining the lack of popularity of GM crops in Europe has been consumer resistance to genetically modified food. But as Biopact points out, the implications of the ruling open a market for genetically modified energy crops, such as canola oil seeds, which can be used as feedstock for biodiesel.

Is there a difference between food and fuel? Will consumers who refuse to buy genetically modified corn meal also decline to fill up their cars with genetically modified biodiesel or ethanol? In both cases, the big issue is identical: We can't say with certainty what the ultimate long-term impact of introducing genetically modified organisms into the wild (or our bodies) will be. But it's one thing to go with organic produce over "Frankenfood" at the local grocery story. It's quite another to try to replace fossil fuels. If some kind of genetically modified Frankenfuel helps mitigate climate change and the impact of peak oil, consumer sentiment on the evils of GMOs may shift.

Critics of GMOs will likely call the prospect of super-crops coming to the rescue just another techno-fix that fails to address the fundamental unsustainability of how humans currently go about their business on this planet. And if, for example, Frankenfuels require fertilizer inputs that are themselves hugely energy-intensive, they may well be right. But there's too much money to be made in supplying the world's demand for energy to imagine that such critics will be successful in slowing down or halting the discoveries that are incubating in laboratories all over the world.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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