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Governments escalating war of words on biotechnology

“The European Union has repeatedly refused to approve products even after receiving a positive risk assessment and has offered no scientific rationale for its actions. Indeed, it is clear that EU restrictions have more to do with political and regulatory incompetence, misinformation and old-fashioned protectionism than scientific uncertainty.”

If those words by National Corn Growers Association President Fred Yoder seem heated, you have to understand that, over the last five years, Yoder's members have watched a 2.3-million-metric-ton market for corn disappear while the EU has made one excuse after another about its opposition to genetically enhanced crops.

Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs, Yoder said the loss of those exports has cost U.S. corn growers about $300 million per year. His comments were the latest salvo in an increasingly acerbic war of words.

Two days before Yoder testified (on June 25), President Bush ratcheted the war up a notch when he told the 2003 BIO Convention that the European Union's refusal to accept genetically modified crops had increased the risk of famine in Africa. EU officials quickly shot back that the statement was not true.

At the same time the president was speaking, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was telling delegates to the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agriculture Science and Technology in Sacramento, Calif., that the EU stance was unacceptable. “The cost of restricting access to a full range of technologies is borne by those who can least afford it.” (Some complained that the agricultural ministers from the EU countries were conspicuously absent from the latter conference, though most were attending negotiations to reform the EU's Common Agricultural Policy.)

In his comments, the NCGA's Yoder discussed the reasons why his organization supported last month's filing of a dispute settlement case with the World Trade Organization. Aside from its unwillingness to resolve the problem, the European Union's stance is beginning to affect market access for biotech products by influencing governments to adopt versions of the EU's current labeling regime, he said.

EU policies are also undermining WTO rules, specifically the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures, which establishes rules that help WTO members distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate health and safety regulations. “If we refrain from asserting our WTO rights against so blatant a violation, we will see other countries behaving similarly and will find it increasingly difficult to enforce SPS rules,” he said.

Yoder said there is even more damaging labeling legislation in the works. “The sampling, testing and administrative costs required to assure compliance with the proposed European regulations are well beyond the ability of the bulk grain handling system without massive cost increases that would destroy the competitiveness of imported grain in Europe.

“Consumers in Europe and everywhere should have choices in the food selections they make. This starts with allowing the marketing of safe products and not holding them in perpetual regulatory limbo.”

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