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German official out of ag expo: Her absence will highlight the gulf between the EU and U.S. on biotech food

(Friday, June 13, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Mike Lee, Sacramento Bee: Germany's agriculture minister has pulled out of the upcoming international agriculture ministerial conference in Sacramento, leaving it without a European Union official on the program.

Although German officials cited important meetings that demanded her attention in Europe, the minister's announcement comes at the same time some U.S. politicians have stepped up criticism of European countries for not embracing genetically engineered food.

Walter Leuchs, deputy consul general for Germany in San Francisco, said German Food and Agriculture Minister Renate Künast wasn't making a statement against U.S. biotechnology efforts. Instead, he said, she was obliged to stay in Europe for newly planned meetings about the European Union's common agricultural policy.

Top officials from more than 100 mostly developing countries are expected for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's first ministerial-level meeting on agricultural science and technology, at the Sacramento Convention Center.

The U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service had touted the participation of Künast -- the only European government minister on the preliminary speakers list -- as a sign that the Bush administration wasn't stacking the June 23-25 conference with supporters of genetically modified foods.

Still, her absence underscores the vast food policy gulf between the anti-biotech European Union and the United States.

The EU has banned biotech food imports since 1998, and the bloc is viewed as a major impediment to the global spread of technology that American companies are developing. The United States announced last month that it is challenging the moratorium at the World Trade Organization as it builds the case for using genetically engineered crops to alleviate world hunger.

USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said the Sacramento conference wasn't aimed at EU officials and that most of them hadn't planned to come because they were retooling a highly contentious agriculture policy.

"Really, we are focusing on ministers from developing countries" that need technological solutions for food production, she said.

But some groups against biotech foods were quick to speculate that Germany's withdrawal was another sign that the United States is using the conference to pressure developing nations into accepting genetic engineering.

Concerns include giving multinational corporations control of basic food products through gene patents, the possibility of spreading allergens through genetic manipulations and the spread of resistance to antibiotics used in genetic engineering.

"I would assume that maybe (German officials) are sort of coming to the same conclusion that this is really a staged event to build support against the European Union, and they probably don't want to be part of that," said Dennis Olson, global governance expert at the Institute for Agriculture Trade and Policy, a Minneapolis-based group that promotes policies that are friendly to family farms.

In Europe, reservations run deep about American farming.

On Wednesday, 15 Italian officials, including the country's agriculture minister, flew into San Francisco to talk with University of California, Berkeley, biotechnology expert Peggy Lemaux about genetic engineering in California. It was not immediately known if they were staying for the USDA conference.

Lemaux was impressed by the officials' lack of knowledge about U.S. biotechnology and their concerns about it.

"They were asking questions like 'Isn't it true that everything you grow here is genetically modified?' " said Lemaux.

None of California's major food crops is genetically modified.

"They have this feeling that the way they look at food in Europe and the way they feel about food and the way they produce it is very different from the way we do it in the United States," Lemaux said.

Despite differences with Europe, U.S. officials continue to tout what they call the benefits of genetically engineered crops.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told reporters Wednesday that biotechnology wasn't the only facet of the upcoming conference.

But she also made it clear that she'll promote what genetic engineering can do to reduce pesticide use and increase productivity. About 75 percent of U.S. soybeans and 34 percent of the country's corn are genetically altered.

"It is important that the promise of these technologies for the developing world not be undermined," said Veneman, noting that a top Agriculture Department official will visit Iraq next week to confront that country's concerns about importing genetically modified wheat.

Veneman's remarks were followed Thursday by stronger words from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who told a congressional panel that European countries were exacerbating world hunger by scaring developing countries away from genetically engineered foods. His remarks echoed a recent graduation speech by President Bush at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Hastert said the EU moratorium on genetically modified products has meant an annual loss of more than $300 million in corn exports for U.S. farmers, and that the world needs help to feed 800 million hungry people.

"Biotechnology is the answer to this pressing problem," Hastert said.