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Words stir confusion in trade fight

(Friday, Feb. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Justin Gillis, Washington Post: The government sent conflicting signals yesterday about its plans for suing Europe in the World Trade Organization over gene-altered food, sowing doubt about just what policy the administration intends to pursue in one of the world's most contentious trade issues.

In remarks during a conference in Crystal City, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman gave the impression the administration is moving forward with plans for a trade suit, saying "very strong action" is warranted to counter European resistance to genetically engineered crops, which American farmers have planted on millions of acres.

But in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp., an agricultural officer at the U.S. Embassy in London, Peter O. Kurz, declared that a decision had been "made at a high level of government" to drop plans for a trade case.

The conflicting remarks left American farm interests and the biotechnology industry scrambling yesterday to figure out whether there had been a change in the government's plans. The Bush administration has been saying for weeks it is likely to file suit against governments of the European Union, and while a final decision by the White House was delayed just after the space shuttle disaster, most groups following the issue had assumed the holdup would be temporary and a case would be filed soon.

U.S. trade officials declined to comment further, saying they were awaiting direction from the White House. Several agricultural groups also declined to comment.

Representatives for two producer groups, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they would wait briefly for the administration to clarify its intentions before making any critical remarks. But they made it clear that if the government backs off plans for a suit, or wavers further, a vigorous reaction can be expected from American farmers, who feel they are losing hundreds of millions a year in exports because of European resistance to gene-altered crops.

Farm groups have been pressing for months for a biotech trade case. At the same time, agriculture ministers in Europe and some trade strategists in Washington have argued that it makes no sense to introduce a new irritation into U.S.-European relations when the nation is seeking European support in its confrontation with Iraq.

The issue appeared to be near resolution several weeks ago, when Robert B. Zoellick, the nation's top trade ambassador, called the European stance on gene-altered food a "Luddite" reluctance to embrace new technology. Zoellick said then he intended to file a trade suit.

In response to a question yesterday at the Agricultural Outlook Forum, in Crystal City, Veneman said that "our patience is growing very thin on this issue." She continued: "So I have had many discussions with Ambassador Zoellick. We are both of the position that we need to take very strong action, and we are working in the interagency process to determine what action that will be and what the timing will be."

But Kurz, the agricultural attaché, speaking to the BBC in London, said the plan for a trade case had been dropped. "I suppose the idea was we don't need further trade irritants," he said.

Most analysts have said the government would be in a strong legal position if it filed a case, since trade restrictions that purport to be based on health concerns, like a European moratorium on biotech crops, must be backed up by scientific evidence. There is little such evidence to suggest that gene-altered foods pose any kind of health threat.

Even if the United States won a trade suit, the World Trade Organization would have no means to force Europe to accept biotech food. Instead, it would probably grant the United States the right to impose punitive tariffs on European agricultural products.