The United States and the European Union are moving further apart in their disagreement over genetically modified food, Europe’s top trade official said yesterday.
“There is just one issue … we have to mention as not being fixed and maybe not taking exactly the right direction, which is [genetically modified crops], where we have a difference and we haven’t yet found the right balance to live with this difference,” said Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner.
President Bush and members of his administration this week met with leaders from the 15-nation European Union to work on a series of agreements on criminal extradition, legal cooperation, “open skies” for trans-Atlantic aviation, and weapons proliferation.
Both sides claimed progress and noted hard work on the trade agenda, where a long list of disputes separates the world’s biggest markets, but offered no breakthroughs from the meetings.
The biotechnology issue has been especially divisive. Mr. Bush and his top trade envoy, Robert B. Zoellick, have said that EU policy on genetically modified crops contributes to starvation in Africa as those nations refuse to accept the technology, largely out of fear they will be unable to export biotech-derived products to Europe.
Earlier this week, Mr. Bush said the policy was based on “unfounded, unscientific fears.” And yesterday the president made his concerns known directly to EU leaders, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
“The president did jokingly say as he got up from the table, ‘Let’s go eat some genetically-modified food for lunch,’” Mr. Fleischer said of Mr. Bush’s meeting, noting a moment of levity among the officials.
The United States has also pressed the issue before the World Trade Organization, where last month trade officials filed a case demanding an end to an unofficial EU policy that blocks the production or sale of new biotech crops in the bloc’s 15 member nations.
The issue is dear to many U.S. farmers — especially corn growers — who have lost access to the European market.
Soybeans, corn and cotton engineered to withstand herbicides are among the most popular biotech crops. In the United States, 75 percent of soybeans, 34 percent of corn and 71 percent of cotton are biotech crops, the U.S. Agriculture Department said
EU officials say the biotech issue is one of consumer health and environmental safety, and contend that the United States is trying to protect its farmers, not help Africa.
The American rhetoric on biotech has especially bothered EU officials.
“I would prefer a telephone to a megaphone,” Mr. Lamy said yesterday.
On other trade issues, Mr. Zoellick and Mr. Lamy at a press conference reaffirmed their pledge to meet a late 2004 deadline for WTO talks, dubbed the Doha Development Agenda, designed to lower trade barriers and help developing nations.
“The key point I’d stress on the Doha issues is the sense of cooperation between the United States and EU to try and get the Doha agenda done on time,” Mr. Zoellick said yesterday.
“Of course we have differences on various issues,” he added.
The differences have stalled the talks on critical agricultural issues, as well as a number of other topics where negotiators hope for a breakthrough before or, at the latest, during a September meeting in Cancun, Mexico.
“No one will underestimate the challenges we have. We’ve got some very significant work ahead of us. But we’re committed to do our best to resolve the problems,” Mr. Zoellick said.