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EU pledges to begin approving gene-modified crops this year

(Tuesday, June 17, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Bloomberg news, 06/13/03 -- The European Union plans to begin licensing the sale of new genetically altered food later this year after the parliament passes rules on labeling the products, ending a de facto five-year ban, an official said.

Once those approvals are made, the U.S. Trade Representative's office has pledged to withdraw a World Trade Organization complaint, Tony van der Haegen, the EU official in charge of biotechnology in Washington, said.

``In the fall the legislation will be in place and the pipeline will be opened,'' van der Haegen said at a press briefing. The European parliament is set to consider proposals for the new labeling measures next month.

The resumption of licensing gene-altered crops isn't likely to end the trans-Atlantic dispute over biotechnology. U.S. groups such as the 5-million-member American Farm Bureau say the labeling rules the EU is considering may be worse than the current ones.

The farmers are calling on the Bush administration to challenge such rules at the WTO. Identifying a product as genetically modified may effectively ban them from Europe, because more than 70 percent of Europeans say they won't eat those foods even if they are less expensive, an EU study found.

At stake for the U.S. are markets for seeds produced by Monsanto Co. and other companies to help farmers grow crops that resist pest infestations and disease. U.S. farmers say they've lost $1 billion since the ban was put into effect in 1998, and fear that other countries will use the EU's restriction to justify their own prohibitions on the crops.

Geneva Meeting

European and U.S. officials are set to meet in Geneva next week to discuss the WTO case against the EU ban, more than a month after the U.S. said it was appealing to the global trade arbiter. The promise to end the de facto ban comes even as the two sides are stepping up their rhetoric.

The U.S. House of Representatives this week passed a resolution supporting the case against the European ban. It said the technology ``holds tremendous promise for helping solve food security and human health crises in the developing world.''

The resolution blamed the EU for adopting policies with ``no scientific justification.'' U.S. officials say the EU ban isn't based on science and hurts Africa's poor. U.S. farmers estimate the restriction costs them $300 million annually in lost sales.

`Amazing to Hear'

``It is amazing to hear -- and I will say it bluntly -- these lies,'' van der Haegen said, referring to the House resolution.

New European-wide rules, scheduled for a European Parliament vote in July, are meant to encourage six EU nations -- Italy, France, Austria, Luxembourg, Greece and Denmark -- to drop their opposition to new genetically modified products. New requests for approval have already been made in anticipation that the proposals will become law.

The EU also offered a new defense against charges by President George W. Bush and others that the ban on biotech crops has hurt the malnourished in Africa.

Last August, Zimbabwe and Zambia, in the middle of a famine, refused to accept 100,000 metric tons of corn donated by the U.S. because of fears the crop's genes had been manipulated.

Officials in those countries said they feared that if the modified seeds, known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, intermingled with their crops they would no longer be able to export to the Europe.

`Not The Panacea'

``GMOs are not the panacea likely to solve famine in Africa,'' a report published by the European Commission in Washington today said. ``If African farmers were to use existing GMO seeds -- and the EU does not oppose that at all -- they would be totally dependent on Western companies which retain the patents.''

The report concluded: ``EU bashing on the GMO case is mainly inspired by the will of the U.S. farm lobby to find new outlets for exports.''

U.S. Trade Representative spokesman Richard Mills declined to comment.

--Mark Drajem in the Washington newsroom (202) 624-1964 or mdrajem@bloomberg.net. Editor: McQuillan.