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Europe's anti-biotech stance: Luddism lives

Hundreds of millions of dollars haven't gone into the U.S. economy — and farmers' bank accounts — because of the European Union's moratorium on genetically modified crops that has stretched on four years and counting.

Despite a protracted war of words between the parties and in the media on the safety of biotech crops, the United States has been biding its time, hoping the European Union would get its head out of the sand on the issue and voluntarily lift the moratorium.

Now, it appears the United States' patience is wearing thin.

Robert Zoellick, U.S. trade representative, says he believes the government needs to “bring a case” with the World Trade Organization, and that he feels there is support in the Bush administration for such a move. His comments come on the heels of mounting pressure from Congress to launch an action with the WTO.

“I don't see things getting improved,” Zoellick said of the European Union's intransigence, adding, “I think the European view on this is Luddite.”

(That's a term you don't run across every day. The original Luddite revolt in 1811 involved textile industry craftsmen in England who were opposed to the new machinery being adopted by the mills. The term continues to connote anyone who fears or distrusts the inevitable changes brought by new technology, opposing it on moral or ethical grounds.)

Zoellick has also ruffled some EU feathers with his comments about the refusal of some developing nations to accept U.S. food aid because the shipments contained some grain from genetically modified crops. Some EU member nations, he said, have been threatening to withhold aid from the poor countries if they accept biotech crops/food. Much controversy has centered on the Zimbabwean government's ongoing refusal to accept U.S. food aid because of GMO “contamination,” while millions of its citizens face starvation.

“It is immoral that people in Africa are not being supplied with food because people have invented dangers about biotechnology,” Zoellick declared. “I think it is extremely sad and disturbing.”

A spokesman for the European Union denied that it has ever suggested to other nations that genetically modified foods are unsafe.

Meantime, acres planted to biotech crops continue to mushroom. A recent report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, notes that 145 million acres of genetically modified varieties were planted last year by 6 million farmers in 16 countries. That was an increase of 15 million acres over 2001. The United States accounted for 66 percent of the total biotech acres last year. Worldwide, 62 percent of the acreage was planted to soybeans; corn, 21 percent; and cotton 12 percent.

“Biotechnology continues to be the most rapidly-adopted technology in agricultural history,” says Clive James, who founded the organization. The value of genetically modified crops worldwide was pegged at $4.25 billion, up from $3.8 billion the previous year. The organization projects that the value will hit $5 billion by 2005.


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