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U.S. State Dept. promotes biotech crops, food

(Monday, March 15, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Carey Gillam, Reuters, 03/13/04: KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The U.S. government has launched a new Web site about biotech crops as part of a special taxpayer-funded project to promote such crops worldwide -- a move criticized by some consumer and farm groups.

The efforts, which come amid a tense global debate over genetically modified foods, outrage opponents, who say the Bush administration is using taxpayer money to support corporate interests for a potentially unsafe technology.

"The government is more interested in promoting the interests of major corporations, rather than the interests of family farmers and general citizens," said Michael Hanson, a spokesman for Consumers Union.

The State Department says the project serves a variety of interests and is important to help establish acceptance of an often-misunderstood technology.

The Web site (http://usbiotechreg.nbii.gov), which was launched last month, provides information about a range of biotech crops -- from cotton to sweet corn -- and outlines the government's efforts to "ensure new biotechnology products are safe for the environment and human and animal health."

It is the latest in a multipronged initiative by the State Department to "encourage broader adoption and acceptance of biotechnology in the developing world," according to Deborah Malac, chief of the Biotechnology and Textile Trade Policy Division of the State Department's Office of Agricultural, Biotechnology and Textile Trade Affairs.

Malac said her office manages a "Biotechnology Support" fund, which is receiving $500,000 this year on top of $1 million over the past two years. The funds -- the first to be designated by the State Department for any special agricultural promotion -- are used to send speakers abroad, to fund workshops for "decision makers" and to facilitate regulator-to-regulator meetings, she said.

Malac said the State Department so far has won small "victories," including agreement by the Philippines to allow planting of biotech corn and India's acceptance of biotech cotton.

There have been recent news reports out of the Philippines of fears that the biotech corn may have triggered health problems in people and animals, but the United States has said those concerns are unfounded.

Opponents of biotech crops say the government should be spending taxpayer money to fully evaluate the risks of the crops, rather than relying on corporate assurances of safety.

Moreover, they say, a free market society should not be forcing an unwanted product on the rest of the world.

"The State Department's promotion of an unpopular technology shows that these companies are having to turn to the Bush administration ... to basically force these crops on people," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Organization. He noted the U.S. government provides no funding to promote organic foods abroad.

The move by the State Department comes at a critical point in the global debate over biotech crops. China recently approved imports of U.S. biotech soybeans and Britain said it would allow commercial planting of genetically modified maize.

Still, most of the European Union, Japan, Egypt and many other countries are reluctant to open their borders to biotech crops. The Bush administration is fighting the opposition on many fronts.

The government has a complaint pending with the World Trade Organization over the EU's reluctance to accept the technology. And last month U.S. negotiators refused to sign a deal struck by nearly 90 countries to more closely regulate international trade in genetically modified crops.

Global acceptance of biotech is critical to many U.S. companies, particularly St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which is the leading developer of genetic modifications to crops. Monsanto has engineered crops that do not die when sprayed with weedkiller and can ward off threatening insects.

Acceptance is also important to U.S. farmers, who are the largest producers of biotech crops in the world.

The Biotechnology Industry Association, which represents Monsanto and other biotech companies and has provided input to the State Department, said the government's work to promote biotech crops is helpful.

"For the government to go in and offer objective information that is non-company specific is certainly credible," said BIA spokeswoman Lisa Dry. "The State Department clearly sees value in this technology and they are trying to share that with other countries."

Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=reutersEdge&storyID=4560726