Biotech is hot topic at meeting

By Mike Lee -- Bee Staff Writer

Published Monday, June 23, 2003

Embracing technology in farming would help end world hunger and poverty, according to a report to be released today by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in conjunction with this week's high-profile agricultural conference in Sacramento.

The USDA's first Ministerial Conference on Agricultural Science and Technology -- one of the largest gatherings ever of world agriculture ministers -- opens today at the Convention Center. Ministers from more than 100 countries -- mostly nations with limited technology -- are expected to view a wide range of high-tech solutions to food production problems. The agenda includes drip irrigation, animal disease control, satellite imaging and -- most controversially -- genetically engineered crops, called GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Agriculture ministers from the European Union will be notable by their absence from the Sacramento conference. They say they aren't coming because of EU meetings on agriculture policy.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, who invited the ministers to the United States, said she's not viewing their decisions as snubs, despite an ongoing dispute between the United States and the EU over opening European markets to genetically modified foods.

Several Europeans will attend the conference, including Gerry Kiely, the top EU agriculture representative in Washington, D.C.

In separate interviews Saturday, Kiely and Veneman discussed farm technology. Here is some of what they said.

U.S. perspective

Veneman: No pushing of U.S. goals

Q: How are you going to measure the success of your conference?

A: This is not a conference we see with communiques where people agree to do things. ... We hope to see people come together and create a network that will create expanded knowledge (and) will give people the opportunity to improve conditions in their own countries. ... I don't see this as a business conference. ... This isn't about selling American technology to the world.

Q: You said clearly that this isn't a business conference, but how will you measure success?

A: It will be largely the reaction of the people who attend. Are they satisfied with what they heard? Are they feeling like they got something to take home? ... This is all part of the goal that was set at the World Food Summit that was first held in 1996 to (reduce) the number of hungry people by half by the year 2015.

Q: Much has been made of the role of biotechnology in this conference? Has that been blown out of proportion?

A: I think it has been. ... Biotechnology is one technology we are discussing at this conference but certainly not the only technology.

Q: Do you see biotechnology as the answer to world hunger, the most important offering the U.S. can bring to the world?

A: I wouldn't say the most important. I think it's an important tool, but I think you can't say there is one answer to the issue of world hunger.

The one issue that we are talking about is increasing productivity. There are many ways to do that. ... It may be through biotech varieties. It may be through basic irrigation technologies. It may be through sustainable agriculture practices.

Q: The level of secrecy around this conference and security has raised suspicions outside that this is an attempt to strong-arm Third World countries into backing the U.S. position on biotechnology at the World Trade Organization. How do you respond to that?

A: The secrecy issue kind of baffles me because we have had information on this conference on our Web site from the very beginning. ... When you have a meeting of this magnitude, you obviously can't open it up (to the general public), but we are in effect opening it up by Web-streaming in real time (www.fas.usda.gov).

Q: What about the suspicions that the United States is using this to kind of push countries that can't afford to say no toward backing our position on biotechnology at the WTO?

A: That is just absolutely untrue. I just don't know how else to say it.

Q: A few days ago, U.S. and EU representatives met in Geneva to talk about the United States' WTO complaint (over the EU ban on biotech foods). Why not back off? It appears the EU is going through some regulatory mechanisms to deal with the issues.

A: Basically, the U.S. lost patience and decided that the WTO was the avenue that we had to begin the process.

But in addition, we also believe that it is important to have the WTO address this issue because the issue of acceptance of these technologies is a growing issue around the world and it's important for a rules-based system to be implemented in other countries as well as the EU.

Q: Are U.S.-EU divisions over biotechnology as deep as they appear?

A: In many ways, the problem with the EU situation is the lack of consensus within the EU. There are a lot of countries and a lot of people who would like to move ahead with the GMO approval process and with the regulatory systems, and yet you have the inability of people to agree enough as to what is the right solution.

Q: What responsibility does the United States have to respect the desires of other countries if they don't want to be fed GMOs?

A: I don't think we force anything on anyone. That is not the intent.

The question you ask assumes we have some ulterior motive, which we do not -- other than trying to find ways to enhance agriculture productivity to reduce world hunger. That is the objective. As much as people have tried to create another objective or ulterior motive, it is not there.

The E.U. perspective

European official just an observer

Q: What are your goals for this conference, or do you essentially want to observe what happens?

A: Observe, not goals. All of the focus is on GMOs and biotechnology, but I don't see this conference as being about that.

OK, it is an aspect and in the context of developing countries, GMOs may well have a role to play in the future. But the GMOs which are there today are totally worthless for developing countries. ... (They) are a benefit to large-scale farms; that is not an issue for developing countries.

Having said that, there is great potential ... to genetically modify crops ... which can withstand drought, crops that can withstand salinity, crops that can withstand diseases particular to developing countries.

Q: I am surprised to hear you give credence to the possibility that GMOs could help the developing world. That is what you said, right?

A: Absolutely. You have to differentiate between the European consumer and European policy-makers.

European consumers are very skeptical about GMOs. They are not against biotechnology. We have all of this pharmaceutical biotechnology ... because there are clear benefits there. The biotechnology in agriculture, the GMOs, there are no benefits for the consumer today. ... There is no shortage of food in the European Union. (Consumers) say, "We don't want our food messed around with like this. We have plenty of food. Even if we have to pay more for our food ... we don't want GMOs." This is what we as policy-makers have to wrestle with.

Q: Why is there such a difference between the European attitude toward GMOs and a typically blasé attitude in America?

A: One is the GMOs came onto the market pretty much at the same time as we had the (mad cow disease) crisis on the mind and (a lack of) public confidence in scientific opinions.

Two, there is a great diversity of food and tradition of food. Food is not just keeping the furnace filled in Europe, it's also culture. You will have people saying GMOs in food is going to lead to a lack of diversity of food and a breakdown in traditions.

Q: The U.S. apparently is going forward with its complaint against the EU at the WTO. You say that is a big mistake if the goal is to get Europe opened up to more GMOs.

A: Once we have agreed on our labeling and traceability legislation ... there is no argument against approving GMOs and placing them on the market.

There is a risk that some of our legislators will say, "We'll see what will happen at the WTO. The U.S. could lose the WTO case. ..."

It puts GMOs back in the headlines again. The European consumer just remembers, "Oh, GMOs -- there is some problem about that. I read it in the paper. Bang! I don't want them."

Q: Are EU farmers planting GM crops?

A: No. No. There is no benefit for them. ... (GMOs) are for a large farmer. A large farm in Europe is 400 acres. ... A 400-acre farm here is, you know, a back garden.

Q: President Bush and others have been vocal in the last few months saying that the EU is to blame for worsening world hunger by not embracing GMOs. How do you respond?

A: I would say the comments are unacceptable. It's up to the countries in Africa to say what they will accept in food aid. ... In any case, given the paltry contribution by the U.S. towards (Third World) development, they are not in the position to lecture us on moral grounds.

Q: What is the perspective in Europe about why the U.S. government is so adamant about GMOs and the world's need for them?

A: The U.S. sees it as U.S. technology, and certain U.S. companies are so deep into this that a global backlash would have major economic implications. So, the U.S. administration and the U.S. Congress is defending U.S. economic interests. Understandably so, because there is no evidence to show they are not safe from a food safety point of view or an environmental point of view.

But they should also recognize that if consumers say, "We don't want them," they have no right to say, "You will eat them whether you like them or not."