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A difference in table matters: U.S. sues Europe to promote biotech foods

(Tuesday, May 27, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- SF Chronicle via checkbiotech.org

The United States and the European Union have started a nasty food fight over genetically modified crops, with Washington suing Brussels over its refusal to import most American-grown biotech foods and President Bush charging the Europeans with perpetuating world hunger.

The battle lines, already sharply drawn, became even starker last Wednesday when Bush criticized European nations for blocking "all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears." Such crops could -- among other things -- be used to help feed famine-ravaged Africa, Bush said.

European trade officials, environmentalists and many consumers say not enough is known about genetically modified food to OK it for human consumption.

They also fear biotech crops could contaminate the environment. U.S. officials insist that genetically modified food is exhaustively tested, safe and nutritious.

In making genetically modified organisms, scientists change genetic structures to alter selected characteristics. For example, a plant may be given a gene that makes it more drought tolerant or resistant to herbicides that kill other plants. The technology was introduced commercially in this country in the mid-1990s and is used to raise bumper crops and lessen the use of toxic chemicals.

After five years of stalled negotiations, the United States filed suit against the EU under World Trade Organization rules on May 13. The suit is intended to force open the European market to imported modified food. The EU is headquartered in Brussels.

California, the nation's largest exporting state as well as a leading farm state, has a big stake in the outcome, experts say.

The Golden State does not export bioengineered foods -- at least not yet -- but it does trade actively with EU members such as Britain, California's sixth- largest export market; the Netherlands (No. 8) and Germany (No. 10).

Whatever happens with these important trading partners will help shape the economy of the state, which harvested $107 billion in export revenue in 2001; $7.8 billion of that was agricultural, according to state records.

Much of the research behind bioengineered food is done at California universities. Inevitably, experts say, that homegrown knowledge will be applied to California signature crops such as grapes, rice, nuts, fruits and vegetables, as it already has been to cash crops in the Midwest such as soybeans and corn.

"I am personally pleased by this action," said Lon Hatamiya, California's secretary of technology, trade and commerce, who negotiated with EU officials in the late 1990s as a U.S. Department of Agriculture official.

"I spent countless hours in Brussels and I know this issue well," Hatamiya said. "The EU rules set for food are not based on science. The EU admits a handful of food varieties, and then every time something gets close, they change the rules."

Hatamiya, who grew up on a family farm in the Central Valley, said that the science behind bioengineered food is sound and that it is good for producers and consumers. He attributes European resistance to anti-scientific attitudes and trade protectionism -- an effort to shield European farmers, few of whom grow genetically modified crops, from competition.

The United States, with 96.3 million acres of biotech crops under cultivation, is the largest producer of biotech foods in the world. Genetically modified crops account for 75 percent of U.S. soybeans and 34 percent of American corn, according to the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

If the U.S. suit, supported by major agricultural exporters such as Canada, Australia and Argentina, is rejected and resistance to bioengineered food takes hold in other important export markets such as Japan and China, Hatamiya says the consequences would be serious for California.

"It could inhibit the development of new food varieties, and we do lead in research in places like UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Riverside and San Luis Obispo," he said. "In the longer term, it could inhibit our ability to remain on the cutting edge."

Grapes, red meat, almonds and other farm products will almost certainly be genetically engineered in the future, Hatamiya said, and California needs to be positioned to take advantage of the new technology in both domestic and international markets.

No California-grown modified foods are exported yet, according to Steve Lyle, a spokesman for the California Food and Agriculture Department, and no dollar estimates are available for the size of the restricted EU market.

But California agricultural experts say the WTO suit is justified on the basis of fair trade and sound science.

"We are generally supportive of it," said Jack King, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau. "The Europeans have different views on this subject than we have, much to our puzzlement. We see it as a chance to reduce our chemical application, which would be good for the environment."

California rice growers, who export rice mainly to Japan, South Korea and Turkey, are not genetically engineering their product. But there could be advantages to doing so, said Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission, which represents 2,500 growers in the state.

"The technology does offer some real benefits, such as potentially growing rice with less water," Johnson said. He said growers would welcome a chance to boost exports to Europe, where California has a small but potentially important foothold. "If you buy rice at a Japanese restaurant in London, that rice doesn't come from Japan; it comes from California," he said.

California wheat growers, who produce 13 percent of America's wheat exports and send much of their crop to EU member Italy, are not growing genetically modified crops, said Bonnie Fernandez, executive director of the California Wheat Commission.

However, she said, "We support the science, and we think GM food could be used for feeding the hungry."

The state's wheat growers, Fernandez said, are watching to see what happens to the WTO suit. Moreover, she said, California growers have formed a committee with the Monsanto Corp., wheat buyers and flour millers to study the potential market for genetically engineered wheat.

The WTO generally takes a year to a year and a half to decide on suits. Initial rulings can be appealed to a WTO appellate body. Losing countries then get up to a year or more to comply.

E-mail David Armstrong at davidarmstrong@sfchronicle.com.