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Consumers will rule on biotech food

(Thursday, June 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Lincoln Journal Star editorial, 06/11/03: Gov. Mike Johanns and other Nebraskans are on a trade mission to Japan to find more customers for the state's grains and other products.

But in other parts of the world, the dispute over genetically modified crops continues to slow trade opportunities for Nebraska and the rest of the nation's farmers and ranchers.

European resistance to biotech crops is so bitter that U.S. officials blame it for thwarting efforts to ship food to starving people in Africa. Officials in Zambia and Zimbabwe refused food aid because it included biotech corn. African officials feared the corn might be fed to cattle or be mixed with other crops, closing off Europe as an export market.

The European Union has had a de facto moratorium on genetically modified food for about five years, and the trade restriction has wide public support in most of its member countries.

The EU Parliament last week altered that stance somewhat by approving a United Nations protocol that will give its individual members authority to chose whether to accept genetically modified crops.

The move, however, is unlikely to satisfy the U.S. complaints that the EU is unfairly restricting trade or to convince the Bush administration to drop its challenge of the EU moratorium at the World Trade Organization.

In states like Nebraska, genetically modified crops have become common, and they continue to spread across the world. More biotech soybeans are now planted than the conventional variety, according to a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications.

Despite the intensity of emotion against genetically engineered crops in Europe, where they are referred to as "Frankenfoods," biotech supporters point out there is no credible evidence that genetically modified crops have been harmful to human health.

The topic is scheduled to be aired on the world stage later this month when agricultural ministers from more than 100 countries meet in Sacramento, Calif., for a conference on world hunger.

The Bush administration plans to use the forum to push genetically modified crops as a way to ease the world's hunger. The administration contends that using the crops will help developing countries boost food production.

The biotechnology industry also is poised to offer genetically modified fruits and vegetables. Products such as the Flavr Savr tomatoes already have been on the market but were withdrawn because of poor sales.

Opponents of genetically modified foods, such as Greenpeace, also are preparing for the Sacramento conference.

Unfortunately for Nebraska farmers and ranchers, it appears unlikely that opposition to genetically modified foods can be fought successfully as long as it is waged primarily at the bureaucratic level. In the end, biotech supporters must focus on winning the hearts, minds and confidence of consumers.