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U.S., EU battle rages over modified crops

(Wednesday, July 16, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --Neil King Jr., The Wall Street Journal, 07/15/03: WASHINGTON -- The nasty trans-Atlantic spat over bioengineered food is about to get even nastier. The European Union says its new labeling rules are meant to replace a ban on new genetically modified crops that the U.S. has challenged. But U.S. farmers say the solution makes the problem worse -- and they are getting a sympathetic hearing from the Bush administration.

Europe's new rules "are a trade barrier, pure and simple," says Illinois soybean farmer Dwain Ford, who serves as president of the American Soybean Association. Most of Mr. Ford's 1,500 acres of beans are bioengineered to resist herbicides, and most of the crop goes to Europe.

The rules will require that goods containing even tiny amounts of genetically modified organisms carry a label explaining that. Biotech products, including animal feed, will also require a paper trail to trace their history "from the farm to the fork," as some Europeans put it, which American companies say will be onerous -- and expensive.

With the largest export market for U.S. soy products -- valued at $1.1 billion -- in jeopardy, the Bush administration will feel great pressure to attack these regulations at the World Trade Organization, just as it challenged the current ban in May. That would risk stirring deeper ire among Europeans fearful that biotech foods present a health risk.

"We are certainly analyzing" filing a case down the road, said one U.S. trade official, who described the new EU rules as "calculated to thwart the development of biotechnology."

The $500 billion U.S. packaged-food industry is also deeply worried, as EU-style labeling rules could complicate exports of everything from cornflakes to candy bars. "They're taking down a hurdle and putting up two brick walls," says Rhona Applebaum, chief science officer of the National Food Processors Association, which represents the packaged-food industry.

The fight goes back to 1998, when environmental concerns led seven EU member states to implement a ban on the sale of any new bioengineered crops to the EU. The moratorium crushed U.S. corn sales to the EU, cut U.S. soybean sales to the bloc in half and sparked serious frictions with Washington.

After years of threats, the U.S. launched a WTO case against the moratorium just as the Europeans wrapped up a regulatory regime meant to lead to a lifting of the ban.

EU officials say the U.S. should cheer the new rules because they may pave the way for the sale of a raft of new biotech crops that have been blocked under the moratorium. But both U.S. farmers and Bush officials blast the plan as unlikely to create new sales, adding that it could actually hurt sales of the few products that have been permitted over the past five years.

The EU's 15 member states are expected to approve the rules this month. The regulations will likely go into effect early next year, in the middle of the U.S. presidential-election campaign.

The U.S. will have a tough time getting Europe to back down. Unlike the moratorium, the new rules are the result of long-considered action within the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, and the European Parliament. And they go to the heart of a country's right to oversee its own food chain.

"Moreover, they are wildly popular in the EU, much more so than the WTO," says Robert Paarlberg, an expert on the subject at Harvard University who is also critical of the new EU regime.

Still, the Bush administration is keen to push hard with Europe if only to thwart the spread of similar rules world-wide, a development that could prove disastrous to U.S. growers who have moved heavily into biotech crops.

U.S. critics say labeling will scare consumers by suggesting a health risk that doesn't exist. Even products extracted from biotech grain -- such as corn oil and corn syrup -- will require labels, although no genetic tests can tell the difference. More than two-thirds of U.S.-processed foods are estimated to contain biotech ingredients.

The EU's so-called traceability regulations will be still more onerous, critics contend. Around 35% of all U.S. corn and 77% of soybeans now come from bioengineered seeds. But the U.S. bulk-commodity system, with its huge grain elevators and its trains and ships moving the crops to market, make it extremely difficult -- and expensive -- to keep separate the biotech from the nonbiotech strains.

"We'll be sending as much paper as soybeans to Europe," Mr. Ford predicts.

EU officials say the labels will simply inform consumers that a product contains a genetically modified ingredient. "The Americans act as if the labels will carry skull and crossbones, but there is nothing in this that will signal danger," says Charlotte Hebebrand, an EU adviser on food safety and consumer affairs.

The only way to test Europe's supposed aversion to biotech foods, Ms. Hebebrand says, is for companies to use modified ingredients, label the packages and put them on shelves. "European consumers are a lot more sophisticated that Americans think," she says. The EU has had a labeling rule in place since 1997, but it was so limited and laxly enforced that U.S. companies had been able to avoid labeling any products under it.

As for traceability, EU officials argue that keeping a record of crop origins will both help verify the labels and allow regulators to take action if a biotech strain is later found to be dangerous. The rules, they insist, will also prepare U.S. growers for the next generation of modified crops designed to improve vision or offer added vitamins. "These are products that the industry, for commercial reasons, will very much want to keep separate," Ms. Hebebrand says.

U.S. corn and soybean growers most fear the EU threshold for triggering the labeling rules. Any shipment containing just 0.9% genetically modified content is deemed to be biotech under the EU rules.

Fred Yoder, president of the American Corn Growers Association, says that the U.S. corn industry could assure that a shipment is 95% free of modified corn for seven cents extra a bushel. But he estimates that compliance with the EU's 99% requirement would cost at least 50 cents a bushel. Corn now sells for about $2 a bushel.

Mr. Yoder also suggests the requirement is hypocritical. He points out that the EU allows 2% "foreign material" in any shipment with no need for tracing or labeling. "And that includes dirt and rodent hair," he says

A food fight the U.S. is sure to lose

(Wednesday, July 16, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Kerry Capell, Business Week, 07/21/03 via AgBioView: Once again, Europe and the U.S. are at loggerheads. This time, they're fighting over food, not foreign policy. On July 2, the European Parliament passed legislation calling for detailed labeling of genetically modified > (GM) food products.

You'd think Washington would be pleased. After all, the new laws will pave the way for American GM products to be sold within the European Union, ending a five-year ban. By the start of next year, European authorities will require all food, from pizza to potato chips, containing as little as 0.9% GM ingredients to be clearly labeled as such. But U.S. agrichemical giants such as Monsanto Co. and DuPont complain that the threshold is ridiculously low and will force exporters to track the presence of GM ingredients all the way from "farm to fork" -- an onerous and costly burden. On July 3, the U.S. State Dept. issued a statement saying the new labeling rules "could lead to the imposition of a new set of nontariff barriers."

This isn't the first time tempers have flared over the GM issue. In May, the Bush Administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against the EU's 1998 moratorium on the farming and import of new GM crop strains. U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick has even characterized the European position on GM foods as "Luddite."

But America's tough talk ignores the reality of the European marketplace, a reality based on consumer preferences rather than government protectionism. Surveys indicate that more than 70% of European consumers are opposed to GM foods and 94% are in favor of more detailed labeling. Even in Britain, one of the most pro-GM European countries, a July poll by MORI Social Research Institute showed that only one out of every seven Britons favors GM food.

Are such fears unwarranted? Not when you consider that Europe has experienced several health crises in recent years that sensitized the population to hidden dangers lurking in the food supply. The most publicized of these is mad cow disease, which has killed more than 135 Europeans since 1995. Other scandals, such as dioxin-infested chickens in Belgium, have only contributed to European mistrust. With no scientific studies on the long-term impact of growing or eating GM foods, consumers believe their skepticism is justified. Yet GM advocates in the U.S. persist in "brushing aside environmental and social concerns as unfair trade issues," says Dan Hindsgaul, head of Greenpeace International's genetic engineering campaign. Certainly, U.S. companies have a lot riding on European acceptance of GM products. Monsanto and DuPont alone have invested billions in bioengineered seed technology and are determined not to be shut out of Europe, one of the world's biggest agricultural markets. American farmers are losing out, too.

The U.S. produces two-thirds of the world's GM crops. U.S. soy exports to the EU have declined by half over the past five years, to $1.6 billion, reflecting that 80% of the U.S. soybean harvest is now GM. U.S. agribusiness believes the EU's new rules will only make a bad situation worse by sending Europeans fleeing from anything with a GM label. Might as well slap a skull and crossbones sign on boxes of American cereal.

But why shouldn't European consumers have a right to know exactly what they are eating? By next year, 35 countries covering half of the world's population, including China, Japan, India, and Australia, will require mandatory government safety assessments before GM products are allowed into the market. "The main reason big companies are against labeling is because they realize that there is a huge potential that consumers may then choose not to buy GM products," says Nita Pillai, senior coordinator of the global food program at Consumers International.

Of course, Americans have been chowing down on GM foods for more than a decade: Bread, cooking oil, even infant formula already contain GM ingredients, something that U.S. labels don't reveal. Yet Americans don't seem overly concerned about the widespread presence of GM products, despite such isolated scares as the incident three years ago when StarLink, a genetically modified corn not meant for human consumption, showed up in supermarkets and fast-food chains. Studies may yet prove conclusively that GM food offers wonderful benefits with zero risk. But that day hasn't arrived. Until it does, no amount of bullying from across the Atlantic will persuade Europeans otherwise.