TCS Daily

'Nothing to Fear'

By Craig Winneker - November 27, 2002 12:00 AM

Acceptance of genetically-modified foods - in theory, at least - continues to grow among Europe's political leaders, but the mixed messages sent by the European Commission and EU member states will make public support more difficult to encourage.

This love-hate relationship with biotechnological innovation was demonstrated earlier this month in Strasbourg when the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of lifting the EU's de facto moratorium on approval of GM organisms.

But EU policy is made by its member-state governments, not by the European Parliament. And six or seven of those member-states, most notably France and Italy, are firmly against doing away with the ban until more stringent labeling and traceability rules are put in place.

Farm ministers from all Union countries will meet this week to discuss these proposed new rules. Expect them to punt. Environment ministers, a pickier bunch, will debate the proposals in early December. None of the proceedings will be held in public.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is stepping up pressure on the EU to send a clearer message about the safety of GM crops - not just to the European public but also to famine-stricken countries in Africa.

In places like Zambia, people are starving to death but governments have been scared by NGOs into thinking that if they accept bio-engineered food-aid from the U.S. they will lose market access to the EU. This isn't necessarily so, but the Commission, while meekly professing to support approval of GMOs, has done little to contradict the fear-mongering campaigners.

Last week Grant Aldonas, the U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for international trade, said in Geneva that unless the Europeans assure their former African colonies they will have continued market access even if they accept genetically modified grain to prevent mass starvation, "people are going to die."

The Commission struck back, sort of. Arancha Gonzalez, the spokeswoman for chief trade negotiator Pascal Lamy, said in a Brussels briefing that "it is not for the Commission to tell third countries where to procure their food aid". She said Aldonas' criticisms were "misplaced".

After holding meetings with EU officials in Brussels, Aldonas told reporters that he pushed "the Commission to clarify its stance with regard to GMOs and food aid."

That very day, he pointed out, Lamy was on his way to Zambia, where presumably he could reassure officials that acceptance of U.S. aid would not provoke retaliation from the EU.

But Gonzalez told me the subject was not on Lamy's agenda, and reiterated that the Commission would not tell Zambia where or how to get its food. She also said she found it "quite inappropriate" to be linking the GM issue to the tragedy of starvation in Africa.

As for whether African countries should worry about possible trade retaliation if they accept, Gonzalez said the rules are clear. "They have nothing to fear," she insisted.

Perhaps not, but they still aren't accepting the aid.



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