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EU-US Rift Remains Over Biotech Food

Hardy Graupner (dc)February 23, 2005

It's been 10 years since the production of genetically modified crops reached commercial status. All the while, an EU-US row has been simmering -- especially over exporting the technology to developing countries.

GM crops are sowing the seeds of discontent in EuropeImage: AP

On a global scale, genetically modified (GM) crops have increased at a sustained double-digit rate of 20 percent, with the world’s overall area of approved GM crops now at well over 80 million hectares (8 billion acres). But behind this growth story, an agricultural policy dispute between the US and the EU has been simmering away.

A leading US-based biotech research organization, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), is calling on the EU to reconsider its rejection of GM crop technology transfer to developing countries, stating that the risks of growing biotech crops are being gravely overestimated here.

Ending hunger

ISAAA's chairman, Clive James, currently on a promotional tour of Germany, said during a stop in Berlin that the commercialization of biotech crops had been a huge success story over the past 10 years. He mentioned that biotech crops were now grown by almost 10 million farmers the world over. James said it was his organization’s primary objective to promote biotech technologies in developing countries with a view to helping achieve the United Nations’ millennium goal of halving poverty by 2015.

"Our interest is in trying to alleviate poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the developing countries, where we today have 1.3 billion people living on less than a euro a day," James said. "Through transferring technology to subsistence farmers, we hope that we can reach our goal."

But most EU member countries, including Germany, have remained extremely wary of biotech crop technologies. Concerns include giving multinational corporations control of basic food products through gene patents, the possibility of spreading allergens through genetic manipulations and the spread of resistance to antibiotics used in genetic engineering -- concerns that are being shared by non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace.

Reichtag und Genmais
A Greenpeace protest in front of the German ReichstagImage: AP

"There's not much research done on the risks of GM plants on the environment or on human health," said Ulrike Brendel, a Greenpeace expert on GM crops.

Brain drain

But Clive James said that Europe stands to miss out on what he described as the most important innovation in agriculture of late, with devastating results for both farmers and the scientific community:

"The question that has not been asked in Europe and should be asked is: What is the risk in not using the technology?" James said, adding that he doesn't understand why the EU, which professes to support innovation and research, continually turns its back on GM crops.

"There are knock-on effects here," he said. "If the EU doesn't allow this technology to be used in Europe, then it will lose the very people that are interested in innovative technology. The brain drain will continue."

So far, corn, soybeans, rapeseed and cotton account for the bulk of biotech crops on the market. The GM crop trend could reach the status of irreversibility later this year if China approves the cultivation of GM rice. This move will have an immediate impact on other major rice-growing nations, including India.