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May 17, 2010

Europe still says 'no' to GM crops, with effects on acceptance in Africa

by Philip Brasher

When it comes to genetically modified crops, most of Africa is off limits. Many Africans and U.S. experts blame Europe.

European countries are both a major destination for African agricultural exports and also a major contributor of aid on the continent.

"Africa is very reluctant to approve and adopt (biotech crops) because they are afraid some of their specialized exports to the European Union would be jeopardized," said GianCarlo Moschini, a trade economist at Iowa State University.

The U.S. government has long been seeking to change European minds about biotech food or else isolate Europe from the rest of the world on the issue.

Doing the former has proven all but impossible. But Europe could find itself more isolated if African governments decide they want biotech crops badly enough to drop their own barriers to the technology.

Monsanto Co. hopes to commercialize a drought-tolerant variety of corn in Africa. Pioneer is on a similar track with a biotech corn that needs less fertilizer because it uses nitrogen more efficiently. Both companies are contributing genetic material and high-tech breeding expertise to African projects funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"If Africa decides to go their own way, I don't think it's going to make any difference on how Europe looks at it. They are taking their own sweet time doing that," Moschini said.

DuPont CEO Ellen Kullman says it's too soon to tell whether Europeans will change their views about biotechnology based on what happens in Africa.

"Maybe over time it will be things like drought tolerance and nitrogen efficiency that will have enough interest (to Europeans) to allow them to start to understand it in a different way," she said in an interview.

The European Union actually is a major consumer of biotech crops - but primarily of herbicide-resistant soybeans, much of which are imported from South America and used primarily in animal feed, not human food.

European food retailers don't want biotech ingredients because of resistance from consumers and fear of blacklisting by anti-biotech groups, according to U.S. Agriculture Department reports.

EU countries import no U.S. corn, as it may contain unapproved biotech varieties. The EU has approved one biotech crop trait for commercial production there - a version of insect-resistant corn developed by Monsanto Co., but little of the crop is grown.

The European food safety agency concluded that the corn was as safe as conventional grain, but planting bans imposed by individual EU member countries have limited production.

A report issued in January by USDA officials in Rome argued that European consumer resistance to biotechnology isn't really that strong. They recommended targeting education campaigns first to consumers in Italy, one of the countries most positive about agricultural biotechnology, according to surveys.

"Most Europeans have heard of biotechnology, but they are not activists and their opinions are not very strong," the report said.

Just six of 27 European Union countries grew any biotech corn at all last year, and most of that was planted in Spain and totaled just 187,000 acres, according to an annual survey by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. Germany banned the crop after 2008.

Des Moines Register

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