Wetenschap - 18 april 2002

Frontis workshop sets research agenda on food safety

Frontis workshop sets research agenda on food safety

The attempts by western nations to protect their consumers lead to the creation of immense agro-concerns and cause damage to the economies of developing countries. These were issues discussed at a workshop in Wageningen this week on the relationship between international trade, economics and food safety.

"If you weigh up the benefits and costs of food safety then you also have to take into account that giant agribusinesses will form," said St?phan Marette of the French national agricultural research institute INRA. Marette cited the example of the merger between the French life science concern Aventis and German Bayer. Both European companies had encountered problems with the food safety policy of the US.

Aventis was the producer of StarLink a modified maize variety with an in-built bacteria which enables it to manufacture its own herbicide. Although the maize was only allowed to be used in animal feed, the GM maize showed up in human foods such as Corn Flakes and tacos. "In US food safety policy the emphasis is on liability," explained Marette. "The judge found Aventis guilty and ordered the company to pay damages." The total costs amounted to two or possibly three hundred million dollars. The company could not bear the costs and this was one of the reasons for the decision to sell the agricultural part of the business - Aventis CropScience - to Bayer.

Power

But the merger between Aventis and Bayer is not an isolated example in the life sciences industry. "In the world market for agrochemicals in 1998, the three biggest companies had a market share of about 34 percent. Two years later this had risen to sixty percent." The same trends are now taking place in the agro-food complex in Europe. "The measures that were introduced as a result of the BSE crisis will probably lead to economic concentration in the meat sector," commented Marette. "Bigger businesses are capable of adapting to the stricter rules, but for small butchers this is often more difficult."

Critical consumers and environmental groups have voiced concerns about the power that the agro-giants of tomorrow will wield. They are worried that these businesses will find it easier to force consumers and retailers to accept GM products. Marette also sees disadvantages in the trend towards concentration, but says these are purely economic. "If the market becomes concentrated in the hands of a few big businesses then economics predicts that prices will rise. On the other hand, these companies will probably produce safer products."

Peanuts

The stricter food safety policies are also having an effect on developing countries. Gretchen Stanton of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) argued that countries that export peanuts to the EU encounter restrictions as a result of the tighter norms concerning the presence of carcinogenic aflatoxins in these products.

"Poor countries are not able to reduce the quantities of aflatoxins in their products in the way that rich countries can." More and more economists are expecting the WTO to do something about the situation. "The irony is that these pleas are coming from our sharpest critics, who previously criticised the WTO for interfering too much. Now they want us to take a more active stance, and to develop more tools to change this kind of situation."

Frontis

The aim of the workshop was to compile a research agenda for economists, who want to know more about the consequences of food safety regulations. The workshop was organised by Frontis (Wageningen International Nucleus for Strategic Expertise), Professor Ruud Huirne of the Farm Management Group and Professor Laurian Unnevehr. Unnevehr was invited to Wageningen by Frontis for three months to prepare the workshop.

Willem Koert

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