House Panel Slams EU For Biotech Food Ban

By J.R. Pegg

June 13, 2003 (ENS) - Citing a new report that Sudan has rejected U.S. food aid that contained genetically modified (GM) food, House Speaker Dennis Hastert told a Congressional panel Thursday that the action is the direct result of the European Union's "unconscionable" ban on biotech crops. Sudan's decision is the latest evidence that the EU's ban on approving new biotech crops is contributing to the hunger problem in Africa, Hastert said, and is spreading baseless skepticism about GM food across the world.

The EU's policy is illegal and "not based on sound science," said Hastert, an Illinois Republican.

"One would think that the European Union, and any country that has adopted similar protectionist policies, would embrace a technology with such promising advantages," said Hastert, an Illinois Republican. "Sadly, they have not.

Hastert spoke at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Research, scheduled to discuss plant biotechnology research and development in Africa.

The hearing contained a range of positive views about how biotech - often referred to as genetically modified - crops could help African farmers overcome drought and poor soil quality to increase yields and decrease pesticide use, but the EU ban loomed large over the discussion. Hastert

Speaker of the House Denny Hastert is a leading voice in favor of WTO action to remove the EU moratorium. (Photo courtesy Congressman Hastert's Office)
The panel heard proponents of biotech explain how it will boost food security for the world's growing population by raising sustainable food production and also benefit the environment by reducing the need for more farmland, irrigation and pesticides.

Africa, because it has the world's lowest productivity of staple food crops, "presents the highest potential for realizing major benefits from biotechnology," according to USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios.

Natsios explained that USAID is supporting biotechnology research for Africa, using the money to link Africans with the international community as well as to build African leadership and decision making about the science of biotechnology.

The USAID Administrator says his agency is aiding African organizations and research institutions in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa to develop their own biotechnology strategies.

Natsios pointed out that Nigerian President Obasanjo of Nigeria publicly endorsed biotechnology and that South Africa has approved two new crop varieties.

"It is encouraging to see Africa's two largest economies embracing these new technologies," said Natsios. "We can hope their example is emulated elsewhere."

Yet while the development of biotechnology within African nations is hampered by the lack of functional, science-based regulatory system, Natsios told the House panel, there is no question that the "irrational fear of biotechnology in the European Union" has affected development of biotechnology products in Africa.

The EU ban is causing a "hysteria" that is prompting African nations to reject food aid for fear it could contaminate food exports, which then could be banned by the EU, Natsios said. wheat

Genetically modified crops continue to make many people nervous about the health and environmental implications. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
USAID reported the rejection of food by Sudan, which joined Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique as African nations that have refused U.S. food aid that consisted of biotech corn.

Zimbabwe and Mozambique reversed their decisions and accepted the aid, but only after ensuring the corn was first milled in an effort to limit the chance it could be grown or fed to livestock.

The EU has refused to grant import licenses for biotech food since October 1998 because many Europeans are worried about possible health and environmental risks. Prior to October 1998 the EU had approved nine agriculture biotech products for planting or import.

EU officials say the WTO allows members to develop their own approval procedures and this is what they are doing.

"We have been working hard in Europe to complete our regulatory system in line with the latest scientific and international developments," EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne said in May in response the WTO action. "The finalization process is imminent. This is essential to restore consumer confidence in GM [food] in Europe."

The EU is moving forward with legislation on traceability and labeling, two issues that have irked Bush administration officials and some supporters of biotech foods who believe these requirements would scare consumers and result in higher food costs for consumers and producers.

Hastert noted that China has developed new rules for the approval and labeling of biotech products, a move he believes will needlessly stunt the growth of the biotech industry.

"What is different is not the content of the food, but the process by which it is made," Hastert said. "Even labeling genetically modified products would only mislead consumers and create an atmosphere of fear."

Natsios stressed that European scientists have agreed GM food poses no health risks to the public, and added that "the President eats it."

And President George W. Bush is by no means the only American eating GM food - 38 percent of U.S. corn and 75 percent of U.S. soybeans are genetically modified.

But it is clear this debate is about more than the safety of existing GM food, which primarily consists of corn or soybeans modified to be resists pests. The science is still new, critics say, and nations must be allowed to decide for themselves what benefits and risks of biotech crops present.

The United States has become "the bully in the world playground," said Liana Stupples, UK Friends of the Earth policy and campaigns director.

"The Bush White House and American business interests should not have the right to make decisions about what people in Europe get to eat," Stupples said.

And critics say the argument that the EU ban is increasing starvation in the Third World is disingenuous and is being used by the biotechnology industry and its supporters as a means to sell biotech crops to Europe.

Officials with the EU note that of the commercially available biotech crops, 75 percent are herbicide tolerant and 17 percent are insect resistant, neither of which are of particular use to developing countries in need of more stable food supplies.

"They are playing on the guilt of the First World," according to Jane Rissler, a senior scientist with the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group of scientists and citizens. "People are not starving for lack of biotechnology." malawi

Biotech holds great potential for the developing world, but when or to what degree that potential is realized remains to be seen. (Photo by A. Conti courtesy UN Food and Agriculture Organization)
Hastert admitted that economics are at play, citing that the United States is costing U.S. farmers some U.S. $300 million in corn exports each year. Canada, who has joined the United States in its WTO appeal, says the ban has lead to the collapse of its $290 million canola export business.

"This is a non-tariff barrier based simply on prejudice and misinformation, not sound science," Hastert said.

Yet EU officials insist the organization's regulatory system will be driven by science, not economics, and say that the U.S. decision to challenge its policy through the WTO will prove counterproductive.

Those who accuse the United States of being a "biotech bully" note that it does not support the United Nations' Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is designed to ensure that countries, exporters and importers have the necessary information to make informed choices about biotech foods.

The EU supports the protocol, which will enter into effect in 90 days. The nation of Palau today ratified the agreement, becoming the fiftieth nation to do - and activating the trigger that will put the protocol into effect.

"The Cartagena Protocol recognizes that biotechnology has an immense potential for improving human welfare, but that it could also pose potential risks to biodiversity and human health," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

The United States fears the UN accord could lead to labeling - it pulled out of negotiations on the agreement in 1999, under the administration of President Bill Clinton.

And Thursday's hearing reflected growing support for the Bush administration's WTO action and the increased acceptance of the argument that the hungry in Africa are unduly suffering because of the EU ban.

"It is absolutely unconscionable that misguided special interest groups are spreading blatant lies and falsehoods about the safety of plant biotechnology while thousands of Africans, particularly young children, die," said California Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat.

Earlier this week, Lofgren joined 338 of her colleagues in voting for a nonbinding resolution voicing the House's resolution supporting the Bush administration's efforts to use the WTO to attack the EU's ban on biotech crops.