BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union discussions last week managed to "demonstrate very clearly the potential that life sciences and biotechnologies have for developing countries. But they also identified the associated risks and underlined the necessity to ensure that these technologies are made safe and effective," said Poul Nielson, European Commissioner for development and humanitarian aid.

He was speaking at a conference here Friday on the role of life sciences and biotechnology in sustainable agriculture for developing countries.

Nielson is one of the senior EU officials in the eye of the current storm between the EU and the U.S. over the EU moratorium on the marketing of new GM products. He repeatedly has stressed the merits of biotechnology, while habitually adding a note of caution over its use. He entered the fray in mid-January by accusing U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick of "a very negative lie" in his criticisms of EU policies on genetically modified organisms. He went on the record at the time to flatly deny the charges that "European countries are threatening to cut off support to southern African countries if they accept GM maize."

"Life sciences and biotechnology will not be the panacea to solve all problems in developing countries, but will be one of the important tools in contributing to solving some issues," Nielson said last week. At the same time, he stressed, "Environmental and health concerns are paramount when considering life sciences and biotechnologies." The commissioner depicted biotechnologies as "tools among others that can contribute to poverty reduction in developing countries," but added, "They should in all cases be utilized in accordance with the precautionary principle and in full respect of national sovereignty and international commitments."

In an attempt to defend the EU position on the vexed question of GM crops as food aid, the commissioner said, "In the southern Africa crisis, the EU position has been very clear: The decision on whether or not to accept GM food must be made locally, by local authorities who alone can fully appreciate local conditions, habits, policies, needs, ethics, etc. Models cannot be simply transferred from developed countries as blueprints. We therefore respect the Zambian decision not to accept GM maize because their impact has not been adequately assessed in the African context."

Meanwhile, nearly a dozen scientists, farmers and politicians from developing countries who attended the conference came out strongly in favor of biotechnology. "In Europe, biotechnology seems to be more about ideology than about rational choice. For us biotech is an important tool to fight hunger and malnutrition," said James Ochanda, coordinator of the biotechnology laboratory at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and chairman of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum. "We do not want to be a pawn in the trans-Atlantic trade squabble. We have our own voice and want to make our own decisions on how to use this new technology."

Among the aims of participants at the conference was that the EU should ensure that legislation on GMOs takes into account farmers in developing countries and does not become a trade barrier that would impede the adoption of biotech crops in developing countries.

At the same time, at the senior political level within the EU, dissension over GM products still rules within the principal EU institution, the Council of Ministers, where member state ministers make the decisions. And at the meeting of EU farm ministers in Brussels on Jan. 28 there was further evidence of deep divisions over how to legislate genetically modified organisms. Although the EU reached agreement in principle at the end of last year on the labeling of GM-derived products, member states continued to disagree last week on how to turn that political agreement into practical results.