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Thursday, 2 December, 1999, 12:28 GMT
EU makes biotech concessions

checking for hormone free beef Worries about beef have added to food safety fears

European trade ministers have criticised the European Commission for making a surprise concession on the issue of biotechnology at the world trade talks in Seattle.

The battle for free trade
The EU has agreed to the creation of a working group on biotechnology within the World Trade Organisation, which environmental groups fear will undermine other, tougher negotiations to regulate biotechnology, including genetically-modified foods.

You didn't just shoot yourself in the foot. You machine gunned yourself in the foot.
Unnamed EU trade minister
Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner who negotiates on behalf of the 15 European Union countries, defended the proposal and pleaded with the ministers to wait until Friday and see the outcome of the negotiations as a whole.

But criticism was scathing. Environment ministers from Denmark, France, Norway and the UK said they were were opposed to the proposal.

One unnamed trade minister was quoted as saying: "You didn't just shoot yourself in the foot. You machine gunned yourself in the foot."

Health worries

The issue of biotechnology, which includes the question of importing food made from genetically-modified organisms, is high on the agenda of the EU after the health scares over BSE-infected beef and trade rows with the United States over the use of growth hormones in animal feed.

gm corn The US is the largest producer of GM crops
Environmental activists say that the approach could undermine negotiations on a biosafety protocol to the UN convention on biodiversity, which would examine GM foods in the context of health and environmental concerns.

"The WTO has neither the mandate, the competence, nor the public trust to work on this controversial issue," said Charles Arden-Clarke of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

The United States is the world's biggest producer of genetically-modified food crops, which advocates say could benefit the world's growing population with their higher yields.

Tough agriculture talks

The concession comes at a crucial stage in the broader negotiations over agriculture, which are one of the key issues at the trade summit.

The United States and the Cairns group of farm-exporting countries are pressing for the total elimination of agricultural subsidies, which are the centrepiece of the EU's common agricultural policy, its largest single spending programme.

We don't want special treatment. We just want agriculture to be treated as fairly as any other segment of the global economy.
Bill Clinton
The EU says it will agree to a "reduction", not elimination of subsidies if the US agrees to include its food aid programme in the negotiations.

And the EU and Japan are fighting to ensure that farm reform is considered in the context of "multifunctionality", a codeword for allowing other objectives, like preserving the countryside, to be given equal weight to any trade-opening goals.

President Clinton weighed into the debate in a speech to farmers on Wednesday at the sidelines of the talks.

"Our agenda here is to fight and win for the family farmers of the United States. We don't want special treatment. We just want agriculture to be treated as fairly as any other segment of the global economy," he said.

It is quite possible that any EU concession on biotechnology - which officials say does not preclude negotiations elsewhere - was offered in return for some modification of the language of agricultural reform.

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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Seattle trade talks timeline
24 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Agriculture trade battle looms
02 Dec 99 |  Americas
Seattle curfew for second night
01 Dec 99 |  Americas
WTO 'seizing control of GM trade'
20 Jul 99 |  The Economy
US hits EU, spares UK in beef war

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