Omits Genetically Altered Crops
BRANDON MITCHENER / Wall Street Journal 10jul02
BRUSSELS -- The European Commission's proposals to promote more environmentally friendly farming, scheduled to be unveiled Wednesday, ignore one tool with a proven track record of environmental benefits: genetically modified crops.
The biotechnology industry on Tuesday blasted the commission for the omission and accused it of caving in to political pressure in failing to embrace expanded use of "green" biotechnology in Europe. "It's ludicrous to discuss sustainable farming without discussing the potential of green biotechnology," said Hugo Schepens, secretary-general of EuropaBio, an umbrella group representing 40 biotech companies and 18 national associations.
In the farm-reform proposals, widely leaked in advance of their publication, the European Union's executive agency for the first time advocates decoupling farm subsidies from agricultural production. The current regime, critics say, encourages excess production that damages the environment and depresses farm prices, both in Europe and world-wide.
The commission proposes replacing production-based subsidies with flat payments for services including rural development and "sustainable" farming -- such as organic farming -- that puts a greater emphasis on food safety and protection of the environment. That would allow the EU to extend the Ä40 billion ($39.72 billion) Common Agricultural Policy to farmers in Central and Eastern European countries seeking to join the union as early as 2004.
But the reform proposals scheduled to be unveiled Wednesday don't mention biotechnology, even in passing, a commission official familiar with the proposals confirmed.
That's a shift from January, when the commission published a high-profile strategy document that said genetic engineering providing plant features such as built-in pest resistance "can lead to reduced use of chemical pesticides, fertilizers and drugs, and increased use of conservation tillage -- and hence more sustainable agricultural practices, reducing soil erosion and benefiting the environment."
At the time, Commission President Romano Prodi said the EU needed to "draw all the advantages from this technology."
Mr. Schepens and other representatives of the biotechnology industry barely disguise their sense of betrayal. As details of the commission proposals leaked out, they have gone on the offensive, publicizing a series of recent studies showing the environmental benefits of the use of genetically modified crops world-wide.
Leonard Gianessi, senior research associate at the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy, a Washington, D.C., independent research group, told a news conference in Brussels that the widespread take-up of eight genetically modified crops in the U.S. in recent years has resulted in a 21 million-kilogram, or 16%, reduction, in pesticide use, decreased soil erosion, $1.5 billion (Ä1.54 billion) in added income for American farmers and higher production to boot.
Environmentalists counter that the last thing that Europe needs is higher food production, which encourages the EU to subsidize exports to the detriment of developing countries. Friends of the Earth, which opposes the use of genetically modified crops, said European society "demands higher standards of social, environmental and animal welfare" -- not higher output and resultant dumping on export markets.
Mr. Gianessi said biotechnology would benefit the environment even more if it, or policy makers, allowed farmers to reduce the amount of land devoted to agricultural production.
The commission proposal isn't the last word on the subject. Several EU governments, which must endorse any changes to the farm-subsidy regime, have already announced their opposition to its most radical elements.
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