Though the department has no reason to think the genetically altered products are unsafe, the secretary is well aware that even in the United States there is rising consumer concern about how such foods may affect the environment. “The government is doing this to provide an additional piece of safety evidence and to show that the Europeans are making a false argument,” says TIME senior economic reporter Bernard Baumohl. The fact is, reports Baumohl, that no country in the world is as advanced as the U.S. in the field of biotechnology. The Europeans are at least five years behind in developing a state-of-the-art expertise. “They are worried the U.S. may have a distinct advantage at producing superior agricultural and meat products,” he says, “and that they will lose a big market share.” The latest Agricultural Department move is unlikely to soften European opposition immediately. But at the very least, it promises to expose the smug confidence of many biotech proponents to the fresh air of some independent analysis.
The U.S. has thrown a bone to the Europeans in the food fight between the two trading partners. In a speech to the National Press Club on Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman announced that his department will undertake an independent review of the process it uses to approve new varieties of genetically engineered foods and that it will also set up regional research centers to evaluate the long-term effects of such foods. The Europeans have been steadfast in their opposition to genetically altered farm products such as corn and soybeans, prompting the U.S. to threaten stiff tariff retaliation.