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U.S. Leaders Push Europe to Allow Biotech Crops

(Friday, March 28, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- J.R. Pegg, Environment News Service: WASHINGTON, DC, March 27, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. lawmakers are urging the Bush administration to formally challenge the European Union's moratorium on new genetically modified crops.

Official World Trade Organization (WTO) action is the "only course that would send a clear and convincing message to the world that prohibitive policies on biotechnology, which are not based on sound science, are illegal," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, told the House Agriculture Committee at a hearing Wednesday.

The moratorium is "indefensible," and based on prejudice and misinformation, said Hastert, who sent a letter to President George W. Bush supporting action through the WTO.

The European Union (EU) has refused to grant import licenses for genetically modified (GM), or biotech food for the past four years because many Europeans are worried about possible health and environmental risks. European Union officials are not slated to decide on any new policies affecting GM foods until October.

Rhetoric threatening WTO action by the Bush administration and its Congressional allies has been building in recent months, but the debate over the moratorium is far from simple.

GM foods are an emotional issue for many people, with issues of economics, public health, environmental protection, national sovereignty and world hunger all playing a role.

Economics is the core issue for the United States, which produces some two thirds of the world's genetically modified crops.

U.S. officials estimate the EU ban has cost its agricultural industry hundreds of millions, including some $300 million a year in corn sales alone.

They contend the ban is negatively affecting global trade, slowing development of new GM crops and contributing to famine in developing countries. It is the effect on famine that has become a focal point of the argument to force the lifting of the moratorium.

"This is a trade issue but more importantly, it's an issue of life and death," said Congressman Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican.

Several African nations, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, have rejected U.S. food aid because it contained GM corn. These countries fear the GM corn could end up in crops or be fed to beef cattle tagged for export to Europe, which could then reject the African imports.

The European moratorium is having "a chilling effect" on developing countries who most need the benefits of biotechnology, said Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican and co-chair of the Congressional Hunger Center.

The argument that the EU ban is increasing starvation in the Third World is "disingenuous," said Jane Rissler, a senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group of scientists and citizens.

Rissler contends that the biotechnology industry and its supporters are using starvation in the Third World as a lever to sell biotech crops to Europe.

"They are playing on the guilt of the First World," she said. "People are not starving for lack of biotechnology."

It is money, not good will or free trade, that is driving U.S. policy according to some critics.

The Unite States is "using free trade agreements as the battering ram to force unwanted [biotech] food and crops onto the rest of the world," according to Anuradha Mittal, codirector of Food First: the Institute for Food and Development Policy, a U.S. based human rights think tank.

GM crops are "likely to make food security worse through patented control over seeds and by undermining traditional agricultural practices in the Third World," Mittal contends.

Even the benefits of biotechnology to those who have access to it are questionable, Rissler said.

"There has not been a single consumer benefit after 10 years of GM food," she said. "There are promises and there may be some benefits to farmers and pesticides, but society has not benefited."

It is clear the rejection of food aid by African nations has biotech supporters worried that the ripple effects of the EU ban are turning global opinion against biotech foods.

For example, India rejected food aid last year when nongovernmental aid agencies could not meet the country's demand to guarantee the food contained no biotech grains.

Australia is embroiled in a bitter debate over GM crops. It is slowing the roll out of GM wheat, and both Canadian and American wheat farmers have expressed concerns.

Some 82 percent of customers "tell us they will not buy GM wheat," said Louise Waldman, media relations manager for the Canadian Wheat Board.

Of further worry to biotech proponents are recent moves by the Chinese government, which is exploring labeling measures similar to those under discussion by European officials.

Still, U.S. officials have not been swayed in their support of biotech crops, nor in their opposition to labeling, which they contend would result in higher food costs for consumers and producers.

House Agriculture Chairman Bob Goodelatte, a Virginia Republican, met with European Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy in February and said the moratorium can not be replaced with new regulations on traceability and labeling, initiatives the EU is actively considering.

"Over the last few years, we have seen country after country implementing protectionist trade policies under the cloak of food safety - each one brought on by emotion, culture, or their own poor history with food safety regulation," Hastert said.

But this steadfast opposition to labeling or traceability requirements leaves little apparent room for negotiation, causing many people to contend that the United States is trying to force feed the world its GM crops.

European officials say that U.S. action through the WTO would do little to convince the skeptical European public, in particular as some in Europe try to further open the door to GM agriculture.

Earlier this month the European Commission said there is little environmental justification for European Union legislation to govern the management of genetically modified crops.

It said that no EU member state should be allowed to declare itself a "GMO free zone," but the ban on new approvals will remain through at least October.

Opponents of the EU's moratorium argue that the testing in the United States should be enough to satisfy consumers worldwide and more than enough to demonstrate that a ban on GM crops approved by U.S. officials is a non-tariff barrier under WTO guidelines.

There are no health risks from GM crops that are currently being consumed in large quantities by many Americans, according to Hastert.

"No other food crops in history have been tested and regulated as foods developed through biotechnology," Emerson said.

Others have less confidence in the U.S. regulatory system.

"To imply that the U.S. government has had a strong regulatory system does not stand up to closer scrutiny," Rissler said. "It is impossible to know if anyone has gotten sick from GM food."

"It is likely there has not been a huge effect on public health, but the absence of evidence is not evidence of safety."

The first generation of approved GM crops are "relatively simple" compared with the next wave, explained Gregory Jaffe, biotechnology project director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit education and advocacy organization that focuses on improving the safety and nutritional quality of the food supply.

"The U.S. regulatory regime is currently not set up to really ensure the safety of biotechnology crops," Jaffe said.

The disparity between the U.S. enthusiasm for GM crops compared to the criticism much of the rest of the world is evidenced by recent decisions by the U.S. to allow further trials of biopharm crops, which have been modified for pharmaceutical purposes.

These crops raise further health and environmental concerns that many people believe the current system is unable to address.

Even so, concerns over GM crops appear to be falling on deaf ears in the United States, and Hastert assured members of the committee that he would not be satisfied with anything but an end to the EU ban.

"The U.S. Government should immediately take a case to the WTO regarding the current EU moratorium," he said. "After all, the price of inaction is one we can no longer afford to pay."