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Corn+Soybean Digest

European Views On Biotech Shift

“GMOs are not really an issue for most consumers in Europe.” Not surprising, but that's what Dagmar Behme, a German agricultural journalist, told me recently on a trip to the Netherlands, where 275 ag journalists from around the world met for the International Federation of Ag Journalists' annual meeting.

Once a hot topic, Behme says the rhetoric over biotech has long ended from a consumer standpoint, especially now that the European Union (EU) has mandatory labeling on protein-only, food-only products. It's ironic, she says, “because the print is so small you can't read it — so consumers don't.”

Behme wasn't the only EU journalist at this conference claiming the biotech issue was old news or no news for consumers. Several others agreed.

Still, the EU continues to ban new biotech crop genetic events and mandate GMO labels on foods and other goods.

The U.S. has asked the World Trade Organization to force the EU to end a five-year moratorium on approval of new biotech crops. The U.S. claims the EU policy violates global trade rules. The EU disagrees, claiming its biotech authorization system is proceeding according to WTO rules, and that it's not violating any trade laws.

Now, however, even President Bush is caught in the crossfire about the EU's 1998 biotech ban. Speaking at the recent Biotechnology Industry Organization 2003 meeting, he said, “Acting on unfounded, unscientific fears, many European governments have blocked the import of all new biotech crops.”

An initial WTO ruling on the complaint lodged by the U.S. (and some other countries) could come next spring.

While all this bickering is taking place, European farmers are losing out to the tune of almost $1 billion in potential farm income without the use of biotech crops, according to a new study by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy (NCFAP). Those biotech crops would produce an additional 17 billion pounds of food and cut their use of pesticides by 21 million pounds.

If for some reason, however, Europeans didn't want to increase overall production, they could cut the amount of land in production. With every square inch being used for agriculture in countries like the Netherlands, that could be a big boon.

“We found that an area larger than Luxembourg, or Rhode Island, could be removed from production without any production loss due to higher yields on the remaining biotech acreage,” says Leonard Gianessi, program director for NCFAP.

The study shows that with biotech crops, France, then Germany, would see the greatest increase in production income. Germany would see the largest reduction of pesticide use.

Eventually, if my fellow foreign ag journalists are correct, the EU will begin listening to its consumers — and farmers — and abolish the biotech ban. If not, they're worried that farmers they write about will undoubtedly fall farther behind in crop production and ag technology.

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