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Report could put a crimp in U.S. corn exports

(Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Hugh Dellios, Chicago Tribune:
MEXICO CITY -- Even before its release, a report addressing the potential impact of genetically altered U.S. corn exports to Mexico has stirred up a dust devil of controversy, including fears that the Bush administration is trying to bury it.

The report by a group of distinguished scientists and policy experts urges caution in trade policies that send millions of tons of corn to Mexico from Illinois and other states, including a recommendation to grind it up first. The report also could influence a global debate over the safety of modified food.

Originally scheduled to be made public in June, the report has not been released. Last week, the agency managing the report, the North American Commission for Environmental Cooperation, handed it privately to the U.S., Mexican and Canadian governments, which have 60 days to decide whether it should be published at all.

The delay has angered the study's authors and environmentalists, some of whom allege that U.S. officials have pressured the CEC, a watchdog agency associated with the North American Free Trade Agreement, to keep the report under wraps.

The critics note that the 60-day period could postpone the report's release until after the November presidential election, when votes from corn-farming states such aslike Iowa will be crucial.

`Totally unacceptable'

"This is totally unacceptable," said Jose Sarukhan, a prominent ecology professor at the Autonomous National University of Mexico and chairman of the expert panel. "Surely [U.S. officials] don't like it, but it is the same report they didn't like three months ago."

Sarukhan said he planned to consult with the other panelists to see whether they would consider releasing the report independently.

U.S. officials dismiss suggestions of undue pressure. But they and Canadian officials have strongly criticized the quality of the science used in the report and say it goes beyond its original ecological scope. Industry groups have made the same criticisms.

"We want to make sure that any recommendations in the report are fully supported by science," said Richard Hood, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "As the process allows, we raised concerns. That's been responsible for the length of the process, not us delaying anything."

Hood said the CEC rules are "pretty flexible" and that U.S. officials will take longer than 60 days if they need it.

According to an EPA letter to the CEC in July, the draft report recommended that U.S. corn imports be "milled immediately upon entry into Mexico." That would ensure that local farmers could not plant it and spread the modified genes but it would be very expensive and "a significant barrier to trade," the letter said.

The draft report also recommended that Mexico reinforce a national ban on planting and experimenting with modified corn and educate peasant farmers not to plant it, the EPA letter said.

This year the U.S. is expected to export 6.3 million metric tons of corn to Mexico. The majority is shipped by companies like Archer Daniels Midland in the Midwest and as much as half contains modified genes created by companies like St. Louis-based Monsanto.

The vast majority is for animal feed, not for planting or human consumption. But lab-modified genes recently have been found growing inexplicably in homegrown corn crops in southern Mexico, the home of the world's original corn.

"Mexico is a very, very important market" for U.S. corn, said Ricardo Celma, Mexico representative for the U.S. Grain Council, who said any halt in U.S. corn imports would make prices collapse. "It would have a major impact on the Chicago Board of Trade," he said.

Moratorium sought

Greenpeace and other environmental groups have urged the CEC panel to demand a moratorium on Mexican imports of transgenic corn. They say a ban is needed until further studies prove that modified crops pose no risk to human health and will not displace Mexico's native corn.

Industry and government officials say fears about transgenic imports are unsubstantiated and overblown. They say a ban also would be harmful to Mexico's policy of using cheap U.S. corn to improve the diet of its growing population.

CEC officials refused to comment on the delay. The commission was established after NAFTA was signed in 1994 to advise the U.S., Mexico and Canada on the effect of free trade on the environment. Its recommendations are non-binding.

Scientists reject criticism

The panel of experts--15 geneticists, botanists and others, all approved by the three governments--scoff at criticism of their scientific data. Sarukhan, the chairman, said that the report was final in June except for a few minor corrections and that the authors will not accept changes to their conclusions.

While declining to discuss the report's recommendations, he said the panel agreed that Mexico should adopt a "precautionary principle" in dealing with transgenics.

"We need to proceed carefully, evaluating risks and having monitoring systems in Mexico which do not [presently] exist, in order to be really safe," he said.

"On the other hand, we think this is an extremely important technology that Mexico should [master] ... so it can make its own choices in terms of which transgenes and where and how they should be utilized and not just using and importing whatever is produced in other countries," he said.

Critics of the delay suggest the reason is that the report could hurt U.S. efforts to overcome concerns that have blocked transgenic crop exports to Europe and Africa. Zambia and other countries have refused U.S. corn as food aid unless it is milled.

The Bush administration challenged the European Union last year through the World Trade Organization over the EU's restrictions on importing transgenic products, saying they unfairly obstruct trade.

In defending their position, European officials have cited the calls for a corn-import moratorium in Mexico. They hope a separate panel of experts will be chosen to study the issue in that case as soon as November.