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9-Misc: German Minister of Agriculture pulled out of Sacramentoconference



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TITLE:  German official out of ag expo
SOURCE: The Sacramento Bee, USA, by Mike Lee
DATE:   June 13, 2003

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German official out of ag expo

Her absence will highlight the gulf between the EU and U.S. on biotech food.

Germany's agriculture minister has pulled out of the upcoming
international agriculture ministerial conference in Sacramento, leaving
it without a European Union official on the program.

Although German officials cited important meetings that demanded her
attention in Europe, the minister's announcement comes at the same time
some U.S. politicians have stepped up criticism of European countries for
not embracing genetically engineered food.

Walter Leuchs, deputy consul general for Germany in San Francisco, said
German Food and Agriculture Minister Renate Künast wasn't making a
statement against U.S. biotechnology efforts. Instead, he said, she was
obliged to stay in Europe for newly planned meetings about the European
Union's common agricultural policy.

Top officials from more than 100 mostly developing countries are expected
for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's first ministerial-level meeting
on agricultural science and technology, at the Sacramento Convention Center.

The U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service had touted the participation of
Künast -- the only European government minister on the preliminary
speakers list -- as a sign that the Bush administration wasn't stacking
the June 23-25 conference with supporters of genetically modified foods.

Still, her absence underscores the vast food policy gulf between the
anti-biotech European Union and the United States.

The EU has banned biotech food imports since 1998, and the bloc is viewed
as a major impediment to the global spread of technology that American
companies are developing. The United States announced last month that it
is challenging the moratorium at the World Trade Organization as it
builds the case for using genetically engineered crops to alleviate world
hunger.

USDA spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said the Sacramento conference wasn't
aimed at EU officials and that most of them hadn't planned to come
because they were retooling a highly contentious agriculture policy.

"Really, we are focusing on ministers from developing countries" that
need technological solutions for food production, she said.

But some groups against biotech foods were quick to speculate that
Germany's withdrawal was another sign that the United States is using the
conference to pressure developing nations into accepting genetic engineering.

Concerns include giving multinational corporations control of basic food
products through gene patents, the possibility of spreading allergens
through genetic manipulations and the spread of resistance to antibiotics
used in genetic engineering.

"I would assume that maybe (German officials) are sort of coming to the
same conclusion that this is really a staged event to build support
against the European Union, and they probably don't want to be part of
that," said Dennis Olson, global governance expert at the Institute for
Agriculture Trade and Policy, a Minneapolis-based group that promotes
policies that are friendly to family farms.

In Europe, reservations run deep about American farming.

On Wednesday, 15 Italian officials, including the country's agriculture
minister, flew into San Francisco to talk with University of California,
Berkeley, biotechnology expert Peggy Lemaux about genetic engineering in
California. It was not immediately known if they were staying for the
USDA conference.

Lemaux was impressed by the officials' lack of knowledge about U.S.
biotechnology and their concerns about it.

"They were asking questions like 'Isn't it true that everything you grow
here is genetically modified?' " said Lemaux.

None of California's major food crops is genetically modified.

"They have this feeling that the way they look at food in Europe and the
way they feel about food and the way they produce it is very different
from the way we do it in the United States," Lemaux said.

Despite differences with Europe, U.S. officials continue to tout what
they call the benefits of genetically engineered crops.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman told reporters Wednesday that
biotechnology wasn't the only facet of the upcoming conference.

But she also made it clear that she'll promote what genetic engineering
can do to reduce pesticide use and increase productivity. About 75
percent of U.S. soybeans and 34 percent of the country's corn are
genetically altered.

"It is important that the promise of these technologies for the
developing world not be undermined," said Veneman, noting that a top
Agriculture Department official will visit Iraq next week to confront
that country's concerns about importing genetically modified wheat.

Veneman's remarks were followed Thursday by stronger words from House
Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who told a congressional panel that
European countries were exacerbating world hunger by scaring developing
countries away from genetically engineered foods. His remarks echoed a
recent graduation speech by President Bush at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Hastert said the EU moratorium on genetically modified products has meant
an annual loss of more than $300 million in corn exports for U.S.
farmers, and that the world needs help to feed 800 million hungry people.

"Biotechnology is the answer to this pressing problem," Hastert said.




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