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EU: Progress, But No Resolution, In Dispute Over GM Foods

One of the most bitter of the many trade wrangles between the European Union and the United States concerns the marketing of genetically modified (GM) foods. The United States, which is at the forefront of this technology, says GM foods are safe and that the use of modified seedlings has many advantages. European consumers, however, are worried about the long-term health impact and the possible environmental implications of GM products. Caught in the middle are the EU candidate countries.

Prague, 15 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Products with a bright future that are helping the world feed itself? Or Frankenstein monsters loose upon the land? These are the opposing extremes in the controversy over genetically modified foods.

In recent years, scientists have perfected ways of genetically modifying seedlings so that they can, for instance, resist certain insects or fungi. This allows farmers to plant crops with greater certainty that they will ripen intact, and it also reduces the need for expensive and polluting pesticides.

The United States is the world leader in the production of GM foods, and many other developing countries have followed the American lead. However, the European Union has a very different view, based on widespread public concern about the possible long-term health and environmental risks. As a result, the EU has imposed a de facto ban on most GM foodstuffs for the last five years.

The European Commission points out that it has no concerns about GM products itself, but that it has acted in response to consumer demands. Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder says, "We do not think that the GMOs [genetically modified organisms] allowed in Europe after scientific assessment pose any risk to health which is different from conventional food."

Environmentalists, however, call the GM products "Frankenstein foods," and they worry not only about risks to humans but also about the possibility that cross-pollination with wild plants could develop "super weeds," which could devastate the natural environment.

The United States, backed by Argentina and Canada, is taking a case against the EU to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The United States says its farmers are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year because of the EU's bans, which it says are not based on scientific evidence.

The European Union has been moving toward a compromise position, and this month the European Parliament passed a package of rules under which all GM food sold in the EU would have to be clearly labeled.

Gminder says, "We don't label GMOs because we believe they are a health risk. We label them because we feel our [European] consumers want to have the information, and the choice."

The EU's new president, Italy, is hoping the measures will allow the quick removal of the moratoriums on the import of new products.

Italian Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno said last week the bans on the import of foods could be removed before the end of the year. And he says a further few months are all that is needed to finalize rules for the growing of crops in Europe using GM seeds.

But the EU action is not enough to satisfy GM supporters. American farmers say the tight labeling system will lead to consumers being scared away from GM products, and biotech companies fear the strict EU rules on crops -- designed to ensure GM seeds cannot escape to cross-pollinate with natural plants -- will dissuade farmers from going through the trouble of planting GM crops.

Gminder says the EU stands firm on this point, however. If U.S. farmers want to sell products in Europe, he says, "they must respect the wishes of their clients [as to labeling]."

The European Commission is due to issue guidelines later this month on how EU states should ensure the coexistence of GM and non-GM crops.

London-based political analyst Katynka Barysch says that in the GM affair, the EU is being pulled in different directions.

"On the one hand, the EU wants to be high-tech and forward-looking, and that implies having slightly more liberal rules when it comes to GM products and research into that sort of thing," Barysch says. "And on the other hand, the EU takes the concern of its citizens very seriously."

Caught in the middle of this row are the Central and Eastern European candidate countries, which are not yet subject to EU rules. Some candidates, like Poland and Slovenia, see their future in agricultural exports as being in the direction of organically grown foods. Organic foods, which are usually more expensive than other food products, have a small but growing market share. Slovenia, for instance, has promised to work with EU neighbors Austria and Italy to develop GM-free agricultural zones.

However, other candidates or EU neighbors, particularly Romania, but also Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Russia, are taking a road more favorable to GM products. Environmentalists claim that about half of the 100,000 hectares of soybeans grown in Romania last year were from modified seedlings. Other GM crops include potatoes, sugar beets, and corn.