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U.S. trade rep threatens WTO action over European stance on genetically modified foods

(Friday, Jan. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Becker, NY Times: The Bush administration's top trade official announced today that he was weighing whether to approach the World Trade Organization with a case against the European Union for its ban on genetically modified food, asserting that the "Luddite" and "immoral" European position was leading to starvation in the developing world.

The official, Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, said that when famine-threatened African nations refused American genetically modified food last year, they were acting under the influence of the European position.

"The European antiscientific policies are spreading to other corners of the world," Mr. Zoellick told reporters, adding that African leaders seeking to avoid "the food that you and I eat" were letting their people starve.

"I think that is a rather serious development," Mr. Zoellick said, in the strongest statement yet made on the subject by an administration official. "I find it immoral that people are not being able to be supplied food to live in Africa because people have invented dangers about biotechnology. That puts it rather high on my scale to deal with."

European officials rejected Mr. Zoellick's assertions, saying they had never encouraged African nations to reject aid.

Moreover, Pascal Lamy, the European Commission's chief trade negotiator, said today that if Mr. Zoellick did approach the trade organization with such a case, it would only complicate Europe's plan for lifting its ban against the foods, which is expected to occur in the spring.

When that happens, products tested and deemed safe will be allowed into European markets — with labels identifying them as genetically modified. The United States does not require such labeling.

Tony Van der haegen, the expert for food safety at the European Union delegation in Washington, noted that "in a democracy you have to take into account fears of the people, and the people in many European countries are concerned about genetically modified food."

European consumers have for years questioned the safety of genetically modified foods. Many object to what they consider aggressive American promotion of those foods, which is seen as influenced by American agribusiness.

British newspapers have coined the term "Frankenfoods," reflecting the deep suspicion of crops like corn and soybeans, when genetically modified to increase productivity and improve resistance to disease. Such modifications, many fear, may have unintended consequences for human health.

American consumers, though already exposed to modified foods, have expressed uncertainties about them; several state legislatures have discussed bans of their own.

If all goes as planned with the lifting of the European ban, the effect on world trade will be measured in the billions of dollars as American biotechnology is exported to new markets.

Last August, the argument over biotechnology caused an aid crisis in Zambia, which rejected genetically modified corn from the United States despite widespread hunger. What had been a trade and consumer issue became a matter of life or death.

Mr. Van der haegen asserted that Mr. Zoellick's statement today was made for the benefit of African leaders whom he will meet next week at a trade conference.

"Ambassador Zoellick was a bit unfair to whip Europeans when we did not block the food aid," he said.

The administration is expected to decide whether to bring a case before the World Trade Organization by the end of the month.

"We're reviewing our options to determine how to best resolve this issue," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman.