Archived news articles - 2003

The Straits Times, 21 June 2003

EU has balanced approach on bio-engineered food

Corporation: European Union, EUBIOTECHNOLOGY is developing at an exponential pace. But while Americans and Europeans face the same challenges, attitudes are different on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Europe, genetically modified (GM) food and materials are an issue of high social, economic and political concern. The European Union (EU) is addressing these concerns by setting up a reliable and more rigorous framework for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

New rules, in place since October last year, have enabled companies to submit revised applications for authorisations, which are currently being processed with a view to deciding on further approvals.

Food containing GMOs, or produced from GMOs, can also be authorised and marketed pursuant to existing EU procedures. Contrary to the situation in other countries (for example, New Zealand has imposed a total ban; some Australian states have moratoria on all or some GMOs), the EU legal system does not foresee a suspension of approvals of GMOs and GM food.

China, which has an important GM industry, particularly in the cotton sector, is taking a cautious approach and has recently strengthened its regulatory regime.

Even the United States took a prudent approach when the Environmental Protection Agency initially restricted the scope of the authorisation of Starlink GM maize for non-food use only and eventually withdrew the product from the market after it was found in the food chain.

There are ongoing efforts at the international level to lay down common principles on GMOs. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, signed by more than 100 countries including main biotech producers such as Canada and Argentina, but not the US, is at present the most significant. It creates an enabling medium for the environmentally sound application of biotechnology.

Within this clear and non-discriminatory effort to establish a reliable regulatory framework that responds to the legitimate interests of its citizens and not to narrow economic interests, it is, therefore, difficult to identify the 'illegal and unjustified actions' that the US Ambassador to Singapore, Mr Franklin Lavin, accuses the EU of in his recent commentary in The Straits Times ('Don't slam the door on bio-engineered food'; ST, June 9).

How can the EU's balanced approach be portrayed as 'slamming the door on biotechnology'?

If there is to be a common understanding on the need to build a sound international framework for addressing the GMO issue, international cooperation is certainly more appropriate than the hostile step to the World Trade Organisation adopted by the US as a means to impose a certain approach on GMO regulation to the EU and other countries.

Ambassador Lavin criticises the EU's policy on GMOs as an impediment to the fight for poverty reduction and food insecurity in the developing world.

It is largely accepted that biotechnology offers developing countries promising avenues to develop agricultural production. However, crops designed to improve nutrition are still at a testing phase while 99 per cent of commercially available GM crops have either been engineered as herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant rather than yield-increasing.

We cannot idealise the effectiveness of GM crops to combat food insecurity, as biotechnology alone will not address all the fundamental causes of under-development. Life sciences and biotechnology will not be the panacea to solve all problems in developing countries, but will be one of many that can contribute to poverty reduction.

The challenge that we, as developed nations, are facing is to make sure that present and future scientific advances will be accessible to those who need them most, particularly the poor. It is our responsibility, as decision-makers, to facilitate this process and to ensure greater equity in the sharing of science and technology.

There is also another sensitive issue insofar as we may be influenced by narrow economic interests, and ignore the legitimate concerns and rights of developing countries to establish their own level of protection.

A number of developing countries, including a large number of African countries suffering food shortages, have requested main donors to avoid providing GM food. The US blames the EU for the African refusal of the US maize. However, the EU has repeatedly said that there is no reason to believe that GM food (for example, maize) is inherently unsafe to human health.

The governments of developing countries have the right to establish their level of protection and to take the decisions they deem appropriate to safeguard their territories from unintentional dissemination of GM crops.

This is a fundamental principle of the EU's 10 billion euro (S$20.2 billion) annual development commitment, or some 10 per cent of the world's official development aid. Food aid to starving populations should be about meeting urgent humanitarian needs. It should not be about trying to advance the case for GM food abroad, or indeed finding outlets for domestic surplus.

Ambassador Vassilis Bontosoglou is Head of Delegation of the European Commission in Singapore.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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