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U.S. delays suing Europe over ban on transgenic food

Editor's note: The reporter points out agribusiness opposition to country-of-origin labels, but she neglects to mention family farmers' support for the labels. -- RS

(Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Becker, NY Times, WASHINGTON, With war looming in Iraq, the Bush administration has decided against antagonizing its European allies and has postponed filing a case against the European Union for its ban on genetically modified food, according to a senior administration official.

"There is no point in testing Europeans on food while they are being tested on Iraq," said a senior White House official who asked not to be identified.

Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, had said that the administration would decide soon whether to sue the Europeans for what he called their "immoral" opposition to genetically modified food. He said that stand was leading to starvation in the developing world.

A cabinet meeting to consider the suit was canceled this week as European agricultural officials descended on Washington to argue for patience.

Even so, the conflict will resurface soon. Mr. Zoellick has said he believes that genetically modified food could help alleviate hunger as well as open markets for American farmers and wants the European opposition to be confronted so that developing nations accept food from genetically modified crops.

But the heated rhetoric of a few weeks ago, when Mr. Zoellick accused the Europeans of having a Luddite attitude against biotechnology, was muted this week as both sides stressed the importance of lifting the ban.

The question is when.

Ann M. Veneman, the United States agriculture secretary, has said that "our patience is just running out."

Franz Fischler, the European Union's farm commissioner, said that he met with Ms. Veneman and told her the problem would be resolved within three or four months.

"We do not have a fundamental opposition to genetically modified food," said Mr. Fischler at a press conference today. "We are in the final phases of passing our laws in Parliament and we would strongly advise not to start an action that would disrupt that."

Experts agree that the United States could win a case at the World Trade Organization and force a lifting of the four-year-old ban.

At the same time, they agree that the ultimate resolution of this case will rest on labeling not opposing notions of science and that it promises to pit European ideas of proper regulation against American notions about free and unfettered trade.

European consumers have for years questioned the safety of genetically modified food out of fear that those modifications may have unknown, and unintended, consequences for human health.

They are demanding labels that identify which food has been genetically modified and has passed rigorous testing. The agricultural establishment in the United States is just as strongly opposed, saying that once the food has passed tests there is no need to distinguish it with label that could be seen as a warning.

"That implies that there is something wrong with genetically modified food," said Elsa Murano, the Agriculture Department's undersecretary for food safety. "It would be another kind of trade barrier."

Industry also complains of the cost. "Labeling is a sham," said Mary Kay Thatcher, lobbyist for American Farm Bureau, a powerful agricultural group. "It would be so expensive, it would shut down our exports."

Margaret Beckett, the British minister in charge of food and the environment, said both sides of the argument had to understand the serious cultural differences underlying the disagreement.

After the deaths in Europe from mad cow disease and the subsequent killing of herds infected by foot and mouth disease, European consumers are wary of any food that is not clearly labeled and easily traced.

"Extravagant claims are sometimes made on either side of the argument," she said. "Whether we like it or not, there is an expectation of traceability and labeling of all kinds of products among European consumers. You are not going to convince them that GM products should be an exception to what is the norm."

While European nations agree on the need for labeling in the face of deep consumer fears, American lawmakers have had a more mixed record.

Although it took 12 years of lobbying by farmers, chefs and environmentalists, the agriculture department last year created an official organic label to show consumers what produce has been raised without conventional pesticides or fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones. The food is growing in popularity it is a $4 billion industry and public response was overwhelmingly in favor of the new label.

As industry feared, the cost of the label has proved prohibitive for some of the smallest farmers averaging $5,000 each year and the paperwork is time-consuming. Federal officials believe that the process could be streamlined over the years.

In last year's farm bill, Congress included a provision opposed by much of agribusiness that required that all meat, fish and produce be labeled with its country of origin within two years.

Already, Canada has complained that the new country of origin labeling will restrict its trade with the United States, especially in meat. In a study released last month, Canadian officials complained of the cost and suggested that the new provision should be withdrawn.

That is unlikely until the European ban on genetically modified food is lifted and the issue of labeling is confronted head on.

Trade and agricultural experts predict that in the end a compromise may have to be reached among competing interests within the United States as well as between the Europeans and the Americans.

"The United States is not monolithic," said John Audley of Carnegie Endowment. "Business groups may have to yield on labeling while activists will have to yield on allowing genetically modified food to be sold and let consumers decide what they want."