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Sharp Talk on Biogenetics

Bush assails European boycott of genetically modified foods. He says such opposition is impeding efforts to fight famine in Africa.

June 24, 2003|Aaron Zitner | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Signaling no retreat from a trade dispute with Europe, President Bush on Monday sharply criticized European governments for boycotting genetically modified foods, saying their actions were impeding attempts to ease famine in Africa.

"For the sake of a continent threatened by famine, I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology," Bush told biotechnology executives gathered in Washington for their annual conference. "We should encourage the spread of safe, effective biotechnology to win the fight against global hunger."

Bush's remarks to 5,000 people at the Biotechnology Industry Organization meeting came amid a heightening of U.S. rhetoric over European Union restrictions on genetically modified foods. U.S. officials and industry leaders say the restrictions are tantamount to a ban, costing American farmers and companies hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales.

Last week, U.S. officials said they would ask the World Trade Organization to overturn the restrictions, which the U.S. says violate global trade rules.

In a speech last month, Bush accused European governments of hindering the fight against famine in Africa, saying African nations had been discouraged from adopting gene-altered crops out of fear of losing European markets. Bush plans to visit Senegal, South Africa, Botswana, Uganda and Nigeria from July 7 to July 12.

On Monday, Bush said biotechnology had allowed farmers in developed nations to grow crops that had a higher resistance to drought, pests and disease.

"Yet the great advantages of biotechnology have yet to reach developing nations in Africa and other lands where these innovations are now most needed," he 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."

He did not cite examples, but administration officials have previously said Uganda refused to plant a disease-resistant banana and Namibia refused to buy South Africa's gene-altered corn for fear of hurting their exports to Europe.

Some people are unconvinced by Bush's argument, saying that Africa's biggest problems are poor soil and a flawed distribution system for food -- problems that biotechnology cannot solve.

"The Europeans ought to change their policy," said Dan Glickman, secretary of Agriculture under President Clinton. "However, it is a real stretch to say that in any kind of short-term arena that biotechnology is the salvation of hungry Africans. It's just not the case."

Bush's sharp rhetoric, said Glickman, "may be part of a game plan to get the Europeans to negotiate more seriously, because we feel like we've hit a brick wall."

"I share their frustration," Glickman added. "It's just that I think it's a bit manipulative and not really the most honest way to deal with the problem to say that genetic engineering will save Africa from hunger, at least any time in the short term."

Bush's comments, however, were warmly received at the industry conference. Peter Rammutla, president of the National African Farmers Union, which he said represents 250,000 small-scale farmers, called Bush's view of the situation "accurate."

Rammutla said 50% to 75% of the labor force in Africa is engaged in agriculture, "but Africa's crop production is the lowest in the world. It's about 1.7 tons per hectare, while globally it is 4 tons per hectare. Biotechnology -- while it is not a panacea -- will definitely improve efficiency in production. It can improve quantity and quality in production."

In resisting genetically modified products, Europeans have said that the foods have not been proved safe and that food production should remain locally controlled. The American Farm Bureau, a Park Ridge, Ill.-based association of farmers and ranchers, says that since 1998, the European policy has cost $1 billion in lost corn sales alone.

While U.S. consumers have generally accepted gene-altered foods, an international biotechnology conference focusing on farming methods, which began Monday in Sacramento, has drawn hundreds of protesters. Police in recent days have arrested more than 20 people on unlawful assembly, vandalism and other charges, according to Associated Press.

In his speech in Washington, Bush also called on Congress to pass a prescription drug benefit for seniors under the Medicare program. He also urged lawmakers to approve Project BioShield, a 10-year, $5.6-billion effort that, among other things, would aim to create vaccines against biological weapons.

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