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U.S.-EU: Dispute Over Genetically Modified Foods Heats Up

  • Andrew Tully

The United States and the European Union have long been at odds over agriculture policy. For the most part, their differences have focused on government subsidies to farmers, which give a competitive edge to a country's exports. Recently, however, the dispute has grown to include genetically modified foods.

Washington, 30 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush and the European Union are engaged in an increasingly bitter dispute over whether the EU should lift its ban on imports of genetically modified (GM) foods.

Bush and his allies in Congress say the United States could provide African countries with drought- and pest-resistant seeds to grow crops in a climate that is, for now, too dry for normal agriculture. They say the EU ban not only prevents these countries from prospering economically but contributes to the current famine in some parts of Africa.

In a recent (23 June) speech before the 2003 convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, Bush said, "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine [Africa], I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology."

Congressman Nick Smith, a member of Bush's Republican Party, made the case more vividly during a hearing of the Africa subcommittee of the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee. "Europe [had] better know that what they're doing is making Africans starve," Smith said.

The hearing, held the day after Bush's remarks, was called to explore ways of improving international trade revenues for various African countries. Among the witnesses was Erastus J.O. Mwencha, the secretary-general of the Common Market for Eastern and Central Africa, known as COMESA.

Mwencha testified that COMESA's biggest worry is not that Europe won't import GM foods from Africa, but that African nations will become dependent on the United States for seeds.

According to Mwencha, African nations would have no problems growing GM foods if the United States were to give African scientists the technology to manufacture the seeds themselves. Mwencha said COMESA would use GM seeds to grow crops for their own consumption, and export only non-modified crops to the EU.

"If Africa has the capacity, even without a patent, to be able to produce the seeds within the continent, then we don't see any major challenge," Mwencha said. "And that, therefore, [is] a question of information, so that there is no risk of farmers saving part of the seed in order to find they're in a big quagmire, and secondly, having the capacity to reproduce that seed within Africa."

For more than a decade, the U.S. has been a pioneer in genetic engineering, particularly in foods, and Europe was, at first, quick to follow. But the issue became emotionally charged after food-safety scandals in Europe, including the outbreak of mad cow disease. European farmers and consumers complain that GM foods may be unhealthy to both humans and to the environment, and could rob small farmers of their livelihoods.

Because of a general public distrust of modifying foods, very few GM crops have been approved by the 15-nation EU. U.S. regulators, meanwhile, have approved many, many more.

There is concern that a gene that is beneficial to a cash crop could, through cross-pollination, embed itself in an undesirable plant, such as a weed. Some critics also say that reliance on GM crops could lead to the extinction of traditional crops.

Today, some 600 experts in food safety and international trade are gathering under UN auspices in Rome to assess import-inspection regimes for GM foods and standards for additives derived from modified ingredients.

Ultimately, however, the fear is that of the unknown, according to Lindsay Keenan, a genetic-engineering campaigner for the international environmental group Greenpeace. Speaking from Berlin, Keenan told RFE/RL: "People have looked at the scientific arguments. They've concluded that genetic engineering is a new science with lots of unknowns. There are some basic and inherent problems in genetic engineering. It's clear now that the contamination is inevitable. You can't prevent the spread of these genes once they're grown outdoors."

This is not a concern for Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE). CARE is a U.S.-based organization that has been active in helping needy countries find their own methods to feed their people since the early days of post-World War II Europe.

Patrick Carey, CARE's vice president for programs, told RFE/RL that his concern is simply accommodating the concerns of the local governments.

"Our position is that [GM food] is safe for human consumption. On the other hand, we think it's important that each country has to make a decision whether it wants to import that food, based on the standards that it has set up for use or non-use of genetically modified foods. So we need to be completely transparent with the governments with which we work, in terms of whether the foods that we're importing are potentially genetically modified," Carey said.

Keenan of Greenpeace, meanwhile, said Bush and his supporters are in no position to criticize EU import policies as contributing to African famine. He noted that America's own trade policies effectively block the import of African textiles and that the U.S. government heavily subsidizes farmers who grow crops that many other countries import from Africa. This, he said, gives the American crops a significant competitive advantage.

"U.S. trade policy in relation to feeding the world is currently a disgraceful mess," Keenan said. "I think, in general, American trade policy is very at odds with solving the very serious problems in Africa."

Carey, of CARE, sees U.S. trade policy differently. He said the Bush administration actually wants competition from other countries, particularly in the export of GM foods. This way, he said, Washington believes that its reliance on genetically modified crops will be validated.

"The basic reason why the [Bush] administration is proposing this is that they want the idea that genetically modified food is unsafe to be eliminated from the consideration of any purchaser in the international market," Carey said.

The EU rejects Bush's accusations that it is contributing to the African famine. On 24 June, the European Commission said it does not tie its aid to Africa to compliance with its ban on genetically modified organisms.

The dispute could get worse. The United States has demanded that the World Trade Organization intervene and overturn the EU's moratorium on the cultivation of genetically modified crops.

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