Next month, the US and Europe would like to make some progress in tearing down trade barriers, an archaic notion left over from the Colonial period in history.(1)

Special trade agreements with blocs, like The Hanseatic League of the 12th century, were always common, but restrictions enjoyed a popularity boom after the collapse of the East India Trade Company in 1799 became the poster child for the perils of free trade - 18th century globalization hysteria. 

European leaders have asked to reduce trade barriers because they seek a way to speed up economic growth and simply charging more for China while they subsidize local markets is not working.  Currently, Europe puts quotas on things like foreign steel to protect their steelmakers. All consumers pay higher costs but in return the industry remains local. On goods like fruit, they put a tariff in order to make non-EU fruit more expensive. (2)

What stands in the way of reduced trade barriers is not only the traditional parochial concerns of Europeans getting more than they give. Now they are using the scientization of politics as a defense also.

“We don’t want to make the same mistakes with our agriculture that the Americans made with theirs,” said Reinhard Jung, the head of the Brandenburg Farmers’ Federation, who owns 25 subsidized cows.

What mistakes are those again?  Sure,  American cows don't get $900 each per year and farms are larger and a lot more efficient now than 40 years ago. But costs are lower and there is also far less strain on the environment thanks to technological and scientific improvements. American farming has dematerialized agriculture in a way that would have been considered the realm of superstitious miracle-wishing decades ago. 

But superstition is big in Europe and so microbiologist Anne Glover, the first European chief scientific adviser, has set out to change their irrational fear of genetically modified food and drag them out of the 18th century in many ways. Europe is liberal about economics but ultra-conservative about technology, as concerns about cell phones and GMOs causing cancer can attest. The public is afraid of biological ghosts and think a science black cat is crossing their path in grocery stores unless the food is labeled organic.

But do farmers in Europe really embrace superstition, or is it protectionist economics hiding behind public fear of science? Farmers worldwide clearly know better than to accept that a precisely-controlled genetic modification is unleashing Frankenfood.  Farmers know that science is the origin of agriculture - we were optimizing traits in grain 12,000 years ago - and that all of Europe has benefited from food science they now demonize.

So why would farmers block free trade and hide behind the pretense of science? Looking greedy on the Continent is poor form but being anti-science is socially acceptable. In America we have the same anti-science issue with the same political demographic, but the public is more scientifically literate overall. If you are in the organic food business, it is vital that you find a way to cripple competitors or boost efficiency - and if ancient people had relied on organic farming efficiency we would still be stuck in 10,000 B.C. so crippling competitors using scare tactics is the only way to go. The public isn't convinced. Even in California - one of the more anti-science and social authoritarian states - a GMO warning label failed to pass.

European farmers currently benefit from 85% of the entire world's agriculture subsidies.  In Europe, a farmer can 'compete' with a tiny plot of land because everyone else pays for them - it is not competition, it is welfare for landed gentry.  Obviously, food is a strategic resource and agriculture (plus thanks to, oddly, the Bubonic Plague) are what made Europe great. So there is a cultural heritage worth maintaining.

But America invented jazz music. There is no great reason to subsidize jazz musicians just because of history. Instead of each getting government money to sell records individually they can get signed by a record label, just like farming can use economies of scale to be more efficient and still maintain food as a heritage and a strategic resource. 'My father had 25 cows and I want my son to have 25 cows' is no reason to block progress.

So European farmers instead leverage cultural fear of progress and science. In the European Union, genetically modified crops remain used on less than 1 percent of farmland, mostly in Spain - which gives you some idea how France and Germany regard Spaniards.  Yet genetically modified soybeans grown in America dominate the European animal feed market, which seems to have escaped the notice of European consumers. European farmers are not truly afraid of science, pretending to be so is just a convenient way to make more money and block free trade.  Yet those days may be ending. Despite the marketed imagery of an agricultural society, agriculture is only 2% of Europe's economy. In America, despite all of the manufactured controversy by anti-science progressives, it is only 1% of our economy.

Daniel Hamilton, director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University, told Michael Birnbaum of the Washington Post the GMO issue “is not about one side of the Atlantic converting the other to its religion, it’s about finding a mechanism for religious tolerance.”

Well, America was populated by people who left Europe over religious intolerance and the economic entitlement of landed gentry, so that is a fine analogy.  America embraced freedom of religion when it wasn't acceptable in Europe, just like we embrace science when Europe remains stuck in the cultural fiefdoms of the past.

China is coming on strong, which is why European officials requested new talks and President Obama agreed, saying in his State of the Union address, "I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union.”

The writing is on the wall. Either Americans - and Europeans - will set scientific safety standards for food, or China will. And if you have read enough to see all of the scandals with Chinese food, Europeans who care about agricultural shouldn't want China in control.

Trade is the economic engine that can propel the US and Europe into the future but overcoming an anti-science mentality is not easy.  As Karel De Gucht, the EU trade commissioner, told James Kanter and Jack Ewing at the New York Times, “The low-hanging fruit doesn’t exist here any more. All the easy topics are off the table.”


(1) Perhaps not. India may have created the first tariff 2,300 years ago but they only became common when goods transport became easy. Prior to the Age of Exploration, foreign goods were in demand and the cost was whatever people would pay. That is why only rich nobles wore cotton.  Today, cotton is still considered a key resource and gets a taxpayer subsidy in America, though most clothes are still manufactured in foreign markets.

(2)  Europe is not alone in tariffs and never has been. One of the first things President George Washington did as leader of a new country was to enact a tariff in 1789. Unlike modern European tariffs, that was for revenue and not protectionism, though America has implemented plenty of those also.