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Europe hits back at Bush in GM row

Biotech crops are engineered to allegedly repel predatory insects and better withstand weedkillers.
Biotech crops are engineered to allegedly repel predatory insects and better withstand weedkillers.

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BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Europe has defended its refusal to accept genetically modified foods, following renewed criticism by U.S. President George W. Bush.

On Monday, Bush told a biotechnology conference in Washington that a ban by the European Union on GM crops was contributing to famine in Africa -- a contention Europe rejects.

"For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology," said Bush, who has previously said that GM crops could "dramatically'' boost productivity.

"We should encourage the spread of safe, effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger."

But European Commission spokesman Reijo Kemppinen replied: "The fact is that we in Europe have chosen to do some things differently from the United States. As regards (GM crops), we simply believe that it is better to be safe than sorry.

"This is a highly sensitive issue in all our member states. The European Commission respects that and so should the United States," Reuters quoted him as saying.

On Tuesday, commission spokesman Gerassimos Thomas told a Brussels news briefing: "The suggestions made by the United States are simply not true. ... It is false that we are anti-biotechnology or anti-developing countries."

The 15-nation EU hands out seven times more development aid than the United States, Thomas said.

European critics also lashed out at Bush Tuesday, saying his comments were more about promoting the biotech industry than ending world hunger.

"He can only have been informed by the multinationals, the Monsantos of this world, to make a statement which displays as much ignorance as that," Patrick Holden, of the environmental group the Soil Association, told Reuters.

A Greenpeace protester destroys GM plants in England.
A Greenpeace protester destroys GM plants in England.

"It is nonsense," Holden added. "Even serious experts on GM will concede that there is no evidence that GM can make any greater contribution to feeding the world than existing agricultural science."

Friends of the Earth also accused Bush of exploiting famine to sell GM food.

"GM crops will not feed the world. Indeed making poor farmers dependent on biotech companies for their seed may only make matters worse," Reuters quoted spokeswoman Clare Oxborrow as saying.

"No one really knows what the long-term impact of GM will be on our health or the environment," Oxborrow said. "Consumers in Europe know this and have made it perfectly clear that they don't want to eat GM food."

U.S. corn farmers say the EU's five-year-old GM trade barrier is costing them about $300 million in annual sales to Europe -- and is blocking access to African markets.

The European Union says it has done nothing to turn African countries away from GM foods, and that it provides more aid to Africa than the U.S.

Last week, Washington announced it would file a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization, demanding that it force the EU to end its GM ban. An initial ruling could come next spring.

Speaking to the Biotechnology Industry Association, Bush said: "Acting on unfounded, unscientific fears, many European governments have blocked the import of all new biotech crops.

"Because of these artificial obstacles, many African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut out of important European markets."

The United States is the world leader in biotech crops, with gene-spliced varieties accounting for 75 percent of U.S. soybeans, 71 percent of cotton and 34 percent of corn, Reuters reported. Biotech company Monsanto wants to bring biotech wheat to market.

Biotech firms say GM seeds resist insects and disease, requiring less pesticide. They also say GM food is not dangerous.

Critics say not enough is known about possible health risks such as allergic reactions and resistance to antibiotics and that too little testing has been done.

They are also concerned about possible environmental threats, saying GM crops could contaminate other natural breeds, create so-called "super weeds" and lead to the loss of biodiversity.


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