- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The European Union yesterday authorized the sale of genetically modified corn to consumers, ending a moratorium on biotech food sales within the 25-nation bloc.

Europe, since 1998, effectively banned new biotech food from its markets. The moratorium reflected consumer aversion to the products, but also has been a source of friction with the United States and other major producers of genetically altered crops.

The sweet corn approved yesterday is made by Swiss agrochemical firm Syngenta and will be sold as a canned product. The corn, already used in animal feed and other processed products, survived an extensive testing process and will have to be traced through the food chain and labeled as genetically modified.

The corn was not approved for cultivation within the European Union, and Syngenta said the EU approval would have no significant financial impact because of limited consumer acceptance.

The Bush administration and many U.S. producers have long complained that EU restrictions are not based on sound science and yesterday were unimpressed with the lone new approval.

“Our basic concern is that the EU does not have a consistently functioning approval process. Recent actions by EU authorities to advance a few biotech products through its process are not sufficient to address U.S. concerns,” said Neena Moorjani, spokeswoman for the U.S. trade representative.

The United States, the world’s biggest grower of genetically modified crops, is pursuing a case at the World Trade Organization against EU biotech restrictions.

U.S. corn farmers alone estimate they lose $250 million in annual exports because of European restrictions.

“[Wednesday’s] decision is a critical step toward normalizing trade relations between the United States and the European Union. However, this does not mean the moratorium is over,” said Dee Vaughan, president of the National Corn Grower’s Association.

Stephanie Childs, a spokeswoman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the approval was a step forward but the labeling requirements, implemented in April, create a new barrier to the sale of products in the European market.

European governments, reflecting public opinion, remain divided about allowing the sale of genetically engineered food for human consumption.

David Byrne, EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, said that testing had proven the corn safe. “Food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice.”

Europe had authorized 16 genetically modified foods before the moratorium.

In the United States, biotech crops are common but not universally accepted. A poll released last year by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology found that Americans’ knowledge about genetically modified foods is low and opinions about safety are split.

Monsanto earlier this month said it would indefinitely delay plans to produce biotech wheat after environmentalists, some farmers and some overseas buyers resisted the product.

Still, the technology also offers potential for increasing yields and reducing costs. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization this month said that agricultural research on biotechnology can lift people out of poverty by boosting agricultural income and reducing food prices.

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