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G8 Calls on Science in Annual GM Food Fight
Updated 1:42 AM ET July 23, 2000
By Jon Herskovitz

OKINAWA, Japan (Reuters) - World leaders papered over on Sunday their differences on one of the most contentious and far-reaching issues at their annual summit -- the divisive question of how to proceed with genetically modified (GM) food.

In what threatens to become a ritual at the Group of Eight (G8) summit of world powers, leaders for the second straight year passed the GM issue off to scientists.

"There are two schools of thought on genetically modified food," French President Jacques Chirac said.

"Each made a step in the direction of the other. The supporters of the first view made a step toward understanding the others better. But it is true that there is still a divergence of views in this field."

In a communique that ignored the heated weekend debate between the pro-GM food U.S.-Canada camp and the more cautious approach of Europe and Japan, the leaders confirmed a commitment to public awareness efforts on food safety and the potential risks associated with the food.

"The commitment to a science-based, rule-based approach remains a key principle underlying these endeavors," it said.

Few had expected the G8 -- the United States, Japan, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Russia -- to reach agreement on GM food at this three-day summit on the southerly island of Okinawa. Those expectations were met in the bland, compromise statement.

For the Europeans, GM foods are an emotive issue especially after Britain's mad cow disease outbreak and a dioxin scare in Belgium have seared the European consumer.

The United States, the world's biggest GM producer and home to a $4 billion a year GM food industry, is concerned that coordinating further research could be just another way of delaying acceptance of the technology.

The U.S. agricultural industry is wary that regulatory and scientific study steps could act as protectionism.

NEVER EAT UNSAFE FOOD

"I would never knowingly let the American people eat unsafe food," President Clinton said defending his stand.

Host Japan has tried to take a more neutral stance, but it too has been wary and a recent string of domestic food safety scares will hardly reassure nervous consumers.

Clinton, asked at a news conference if the Europeans had been too cautious, said: "Well, I think you know that I believe that.

"I believe every country, and certainly the European Union, has a right and a responsibility to assure food safety. The only thing I have ever asked on GM foods is that decisions be based on clear science," he said after meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Blair underscored the weekend differences.

"I do hope there will be an opportunity for debate. there are intensely felt views on both sides of the argument," he said.

Blair has faced ferocious opposition to GM foods from green and consumer groups. He has emphasized the need for a science-based approach to tackle the fears of what the opposition forces have dubbed "Frankenstein foods."

One of the big stumbling blocks in talks in Okinawa was the "precautionary principle" that allows countries to block GM imports whose safety they doubt.

The leaders said they supported the efforts of a food safety body "to achieve greater global consensus on how precaution should be applied to food safety in circumstances where available scientific information is incomplete or contradictory."

FEAR, MONEY AND FOOD

U.S. bio-tech firms are already smarting from the adoption this year of the Biosafety Protocol, the first agreement regulating GM trade, that includes the precautionary principle.

Yet some experts say the United States may have to soften its stance and submit to European and Japanese demands for more stringent checks as there is a growing acceptance that public concern is the biggest single barrier to GM trade.

"One of the big issues is public concern...there's a growing recognition of the need to engage a broader range of stakeholders," Peter Kearns, the principle administrator for biotechnology at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), told Reuters last week.

A set of OECD reports drawn up at the request of last year's G8 summit aimed to set out the state of debate on GM organisms, which contain a gene from a different organism to give plants resistance to herbicides or disease.

The OECD report's assertion that governments are confident in the safety of GM products they have already approved has stirred up controversy.

Activists say the OECD has excluded anti-GM opinion from the process while favoring the biotech industry and scientists keen to promote GM research.

Nor does its report provide definitive answers on some of the murkier scientific and ethical problems posed by GM food.

Some believe the jury is still out on other health and environment worries, prompting consumer groups to call on the G8 earlier this week to impose a moratorium on GM food development.

The United States has already lost millions of dollars in export earnings due to disagreements over what qualifies as safe and wants a clear set of science-based rules set up quickly.