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Bush Assails Europe Stance on Food Trade

President asserts that continent's opposition to genetically modified crops hurts the fight against famine in Africa.

May 22, 2003|Edwin Chen and Peter G. Gosselin | Times Staff Writers

NEW LONDON, Conn. — President Bush on Wednesday accused Europe of impeding the fight against famine in Africa by shunning America's genetically modified food products -- a charge likely to aggravate U.S.-European relations before a summit of the leaders of industrialized nations in France.

"European governments should join -- not hinder -- the great cause of ending hunger in Africa," Bush said. He branded the opposition to genetically modified agricultural products as based on "unfounded, unscientific fears."

The president's tough words, in a commencement speech at the Coast Guard Academy, foreshadowed a potentially bitter trade skirmish, even as Bush and his French and German counterparts move to mend relations frayed over the Iraq war.

A variety of analysts said Bush has a strong case against European objections to genetically modified crops. But they warned that in making the case in such explicit terms just before a summit, Bush risks spreading to the economic realm the ill will existing between the United States and much of Europe on the diplomatic and military fronts.

Analysts also worried Bush's remarks will rattle financial markets upset by an apparent administration decision to let the U.S. dollar slide in value against other currencies, a move designed to boost American exports at the expense of European and Asian competitors.

"The markets are already concerned about a sharply weakened dollar," said Robert D. Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International. "If there's a perception that the rancor over Iraq is spilling over to trade and monetary matters, that will be profoundly unsettling."

The United States is a world leader in producing so-called GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Wednesday marked the first time Bush publicly weighed in on the controversy over them.

Two of Europe's staunchest foes of such bioengineered products are Germany and France, the same nations that vociferously opposed Bush's drive to win U.N. backing for a war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction.

The president avoided direct mention of Germany or France in an address largely devoted to international humanitarian assistance. And a White House official insisted that Bush was not looking to start a new tussle with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Sean McCormack, a National Security Council spokesman, characterized the president's remarks as "a message of hope, a positive agenda that we can all get together on."

A Longtime Wrangle

But Bush's speech, along with other recent administration actions, in advance of the G-8 summit June 1-3, is almost certain to be seen as provocative. The United States last week filed a case against the European Union with the World Trade Organization over Europe's treatment of most genetically modified foods. The two sides have been wrangling over the issue in trade talks for at least four years.

"This will only inflame European opinion against the U.S.," said C. Gary Hufbauer, a senior economist with the Institute for International Economics in Washington.

The EU imposed a moratorium on approving genetically modified agricultural products in 1998 because of widespread concern among European consumers that they might be unsafe. But such crops are more resistant to disease, drought and pests -- and can prevent soil erosion and drastically cut the need for pesticides, according to U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.

In an opinion column in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal, Zoellick blamed "irresponsible rhetoric" in Europe for hurting trade -- and thus, the quality of life -- in Africa, a point Bush elaborated on in his speech.

The EU's actions, the president said, have "caused many African nations to avoid investing in biotechnologies, for fear their products will be shut out of European markets."

Zoellick said in his essay: "Uganda refused to plant a disease-resistant type of banana because of fears it would jeopardize exports to Europe. Namibia will not buy South Africa's biotech corn for cattle feed to avoid hurting its beef exports to Europe. India, China and other countries in South America and Africa have expressed the same trepidation."

Up to 34% of the U.S. corn crop and almost 80% of its soybeans are grown with genetically modified seed that grows its own pesticides and resists weed-killing sprays that make it easier to manage crops. The EU boycott has cost American producers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue annually.

Scientific Findings

The European position has been especially irritating to the United States because it continues despite findings by leading American, French and British scientific societies that genetically modified products pose almost no safety risks to humans, said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

Zoellick asserted that the volume of scientific studies showing such products to be safe is overwhelming.

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