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Europe

GM Food Debate Rears its Head Again

Genetically-modified food – good or bad? The familiar debate is once again the source of intense transatlantic friction this week as U.S. President Bush stepped up pressure on the EU to drop its GM ban.

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Corn out of the laboratory: fit to eat?

The transatlantic dispute over genetically-modified food flared up this week with U.S. President George W. Bush accusing the European Union of being indirectly responsible for Africa’s hunger plight with its obstructionist stance.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (Bio) in Washington on Monday, Bush said European governments had blocked the import of biotechnology crops "based on unfounded and unscientific fears."

The president stressed that as a result many African nations were afraid to use GM crops for fear they would not get access to European markets. "For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge European nations to end their opposition to biotechnology," he added.

EU officials vehemently rejected Bush’s comments. "The suggestions made by the United States are simply not true," European Commission spokesman Gerassimos Thomas told a daily news briefing on Tuesday. "It is false that we are anti-biotechnology or anti-developing countries."

EU outlaws GM food

The transatlantic row over genetically-modified food is not new.

The EU imposed a moratorium on the farming and import of GM foods and grains in 1998 due to safety concerns. Except for the import of approved strains of GM corn and soybeans for use in food products, EU states banned most GM crops. It has also restricted GM field trials.

However, officials are working on a system of labeling existing GM foods so that European consumers can choose whether to buy them. The European parliament is also due to vote on the rules next week, a move which could lead the way for the ban to be lifted.

GM technology is generally viewed with skepticism in Europe and numerous surveys show that health and environmentally-conscious consumers tend to question the food on their plate before swallowing it.

European environmentalists have repeatedly voiced concern about the health risks and the threat to the environment and say not enough independent studies have been conducted to prove the gene-altering technology is safe.

"No one really knows what the long-term impact of GM will be on our health or the environment," spokeswoman Clare Oxborrow of green group Friends of the Earth told Reuters. "Consumers in Europe know this and have made it perfectly clear that they don't want to eat GM food."

EU ban hurting the U.S.

For his part President Bush has argued that the EU ban was not just hurting U.S.-produced crops, but also influencing other countries, especially in the developing world, to oppose GM crops when they could benefit immensely from them.

Last year, several African countries like Zambia rejected GM food aid from the U.S. despite suffering severe food shortages. "We are not going to accept GM food until there is a world consensus on its safety for human consumption," Zambia’s Commerce, Trade and Industry Minister Dipak Patel told Reuters on Tuesday.

The EU ban is also having an impact on the large U.S. biotech industry. Gene-spliced crops account for 75 percent of U.S. soybeans, 71 percent of cotton and 34 percent of corn, making the U.S. the world leader in biotech crops.

The U.S. has launched a trade suit with the World Trade Organization to overturn the EU restrictions, which have crippled GM exports to the EU in the last five years. U.S. corn farmers say they are losing about $300 million a year in sales to the EU.

GM hype all hogwash?

Proponents of GM technology argue it will increase farm yields, lower costs and provide enough food for a hungry world.

But critics of GM food don’t buy the argument. They accuse the U.S. president of having only the interests of powerful American biotech companies in mind and have pooh-poohed his concern over helping the developing world. "It is nonsense," Patrick Holden of environmental group Soil Association told Reuters. "Even serious experts on GM will concede that there is no evidence that GM can make any greater contribution to feeding the world than existing agricultural science."

While the GM food debate continues unabated back and forth across the Atlantic, the latest round of bickering could hardly have come at a worse time. On Wednesday EU leaders will meet with President Bush in Washington to ease transatlantic strains prompted by the Iraq crisis.

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