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7-Business: U.S. uses Czech Republic as a key to open EU GMO market



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TITLE:  The New World and the Old square off over agriculture
        The US is pressuring the EU to approve open its doors to modified
        foods and is using the Czech Republic as a key
SOURCE: Taipei Times, Taiwan
        http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2003/07/23/2003060631
DATE:   Jul 23, 2003

------------------- archive: http://www.genet-info.org/ -------------------


The New World and the Old square off over agriculture
The US is pressuring the EU to approve open its doors to modified foods
and is using the Czech Republic as a key

While the US swings a big stick in its campaign for approval of
genetically modified foods in the European Union, a more subtle form of
lobbying is nudging Brussels from the east.

The quiet pressure revolves around a small crop experiment in the Moravia
region in the south of the Czech Republic, where the US agri-giant
Monsanto has been testing a new variety of insect resistant GM corn for
three growing seasons.

It's a field test that, despite heated opposition from environmentalists
and organic food growers, has brought this soon-to-be EU member country a
step away from approving the company's pending applications to register
GM crops for import, export, growing and processing in the Czech Republic.

GM promoters and particularly Monsanto, whose bio-engineered products are
responsible for 95 percent of the world's GM crops, are counting on
support for the controversial crops in eastern Europe to strengthen its
business across the continent.

In addition, the growing acceptance of genetically altered crops in the
Czech Republic and several neighbors from the former Soviet bloc has
given the US government extra ammunition in its ongoing, trans-Atlantic
battle against the EU's GM opponents.

A few GM applications have been approved and registered in the past three
years by governments in EU candidate countries including the Czech
Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

This spring, for example, Slovakia granted a registration request for
importing GM corn for food and livestock feed. Monsanto is asking the
Czech government to approve its full-scope registration application by
autumn harvest before the country enters the EU in May next year.

Czech Environment Minister Libor Ambrozek is scheduled to make a final
decision based on the findings of a national science commission, which is
currently reviewing Monsanto's application. If he approves the request
within a few months, as expected, the company would have permission to
begin full-scale growing tests of new GM varieties next spring and sell
the seed to Czech farmers three years later.

Monsanto's two hectare test in Moravia is a demonstration plot for a new
type of corn called "Bt" maize, the company's Prague spokeswoman Miluse
Kusendova said. The corn was genetically altered to resist the European
corn borer, an insect that eats holes in leaves and stalks.

It was engineered specifically for farms in the southern Moravia region
although the variety may do well on Slovak, Austrian and Hungarian farms
that have similar climate conditions, Kusendova said.

"Because of the corn borer, many farmers would like to have this
product," she said.

Since the experiment began, the test plot has been a popular attraction
for local farmers who are curious about GM technology and may want to
plant or buy GM seed in future. It's also been a site for protest rallies
organized by anti-GM groups.

As in other parts of Europe, Czech opposition to Monsanto's plans has
been well organized and vocal. Farm groups such as Pro-Bio and Czech
members of Greenpeace fear GM crops will upset nature's balance and
contaminate organic farms. They also fear negative impacts of GM foods on
human health.

At a conference in the Czech Republic last month, groups representing
organic farmers from 11 countries including six EU newcomers passed a
resolution urging the EU to clarify all matters surrounding the safety of
GM crops.

Referring to EU agriculture chief Franz Fischler, Austrian organic farm
leader Hannes Tomic said the resolution sent, "a strong signal to
Commissioner Fischler that he must not exert his GM policies against
ecological farming in the enlarged Europe."

Yet Monsanto and other GM supporters, such as members of the Czech
Academy of Sciences, point to the widespread acceptance and success of GM
crops in the US, China and Brazil as well as endorsements from scientific
organizations.

For example, Bt maize growing in Moravia got a thumbs up last year from
insect experts with the European Congress of Entomology. They declared
"all risks" linked to the new corn variety, "are heavily outweighed by
the much larger risk," to farms posed by pests and insecticides.

The Monsanto request now being mulled over by the Czech environment
ministry reflects the GM review processes ongoing in every European
capital including Brussels. The governments are looking at proposals for
growing modified corn, soybeans, sugar beets and other crops on the
continent as well as foods imported from abroad.

Not all GM proposals are on equal footing; Austria and Greece have been
tougher with registration applications than Spain, Germany and Britain.
East European countries are a step or two behind their western counterparts.

The Czech Republic enacted its first GM law in 2000. Since then, as part
of the enlargement process, the government has brought health standards
for GM foods in harmony with EU regulations. Consumer products containing
GM foods, for example, must be clearly labelled.

Similarly, the Czech government has tried to match its GM policies to
regulations in other countries. For example, Monsanto got permission for
its test plot in Moravia two years after governments in Spain and Germany
approved similar field tests for BT maize.

EU enlargement next year will put the Czech Republic under Brussels'
legal umbrella and significantly diminish the Prague government's role in
debates on GM regulation. An example is the EU's latest proposal for food
traceability and labelling, strongly opposed by the US, which could cover
products sold in Czech groceries next year regardless of Prague's position.

Yet this summer, as Monsanto's Bt maize ripens under the Moravian sun, GM
is still mainly a local issue.

GM opponents won a small victory last month when the Czech environment
minister decided to postpone his decision. But with EU membership in
sight and Monsanto's field test bearing fruit, a green light is expected
within months. The environment minister is expected to accept the
commission's recommendation quickly.

A positive ruling would allow Czech farmers to begin planting insect
resistant BT maize seed in 2007. By then, the GM debate that's squeezing
Brussels from east and west could be long over.

 


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