EU-U.S.A. biotech rift widens

  • 2003-07-03
  • Rob Lever

A U.S.-EU rift over genetically modified foods spilled out into the open at the June 25 summit of the world's largest trading blocs, with officials bitterly criticizing each other's positions.
The dispute appeared to sour the mood of the summit, which sought to ease some of the growing trade differences between Washington and Brussels, but officials said they were making progress in other areas.
Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commission, acknowledged after a series of meetings in the U.S. capital, including with President George W. Bush, that the discussions on biotech foods were "maybe not exactly taking the right direction."
"We have a difference, and we haven't yet found the right balance to live with this difference," he told reporters in a joint briefing with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick.
Lamy said EU officials rejected the U.S. view that Europe's refusal of genetically modified organisms, which include crops like corn and soybeans, was hurting efforts to curb starvation in Africa and other poor countries.
"It's one thing disagreeing, it's another thing to use starvation in Africa for this, I'm sorry to say we don't accept this argument," said Lamy.
Zoellick told reporters he missed a White House session in which the issue arose and that "the president and Pascal got into it."
Zoellick said Washington, which has already filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization on the biotech issue, would continue to press for a public debate on the issue.
"We believe it is important to engage in a public debate," Zoellick said.
"There are a number of Africans that have told me they are afraid of developing biotech products because they can't sell it to Europe. If the European public recognizes some of the issues, maybe it will move [officials'] thinking."
Meanwhile Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis, who heads the EU summit delegation, defended the European de factor moratorium on genetically engineered foods.
"Our public opinion is very sensitive to this issue. There is a difference of mentality," he said.
Bush, in a speech to a biotechnology conference June 30, said the EU's opposition to biotech had a chilling effect on African efforts to harness the technology to fight famine.
European officials had denied the accusation and said they hoped the "misunderstanding" would be cleared up at the June 25 summit.
Bush tried to make light of the dispute, jokingly inviting visiting European leaders to feast on genetically modified foods.
After meeting with European Commission President Romano Prodi and Simitis, whose country holds the revolving EU presidency through June 30, Bush "did jokingly say, as he got up from the table, 'Let's go eat some genetically modified food for lunch,'" said spokesman Ari Fleischer.
"He said it with a big smile, and everybody laughed," he added, refusing to say whether anything on the menu at the working lunch was, in fact, genetically modified.
Meanwhile, officials said they were continuing to advance the agenda for liberalized global trade rules under the Doha round of talks, a wide-ranging tariff reform plan that is planned for next year.
"We're working to try to get the Doha agenda done," Zoellick said.
In response to a question about the slow pace of the talks, Zoellick said, "If it wasn't for the United States and the EU, the Doha negotiations would not be launched. It's a once in a generation opportunity, we have to be bold, we have to open markets."