BRUSSELS, Belgium - Some of the recent tensions on biotechnology were taken out of trans-Atlantic relations at the European Union-United States summit in Queluz, Portugal, last week.
"We have taken new steps to address the full range of issues of concern," most of which relate to the use of modern biotechnology in food and agriculture, the two sides said after the meeting.
U.S. President Bill Clinton and European Commission President Romano Prodi launched the EU-U.S. Biotechnology Consultative Forum, made up of eminent figures from outside government, and intended to provide a "venue for thoughtful discussion." The hope is that the forum "will contribute toward fostering better understanding of the many important issues involved," according to the official statement.
The forum will include individuals with a broad range of perspectives, expertise and interests, including those with backgrounds in labor, academia and business. They will look at factors such as the food security needs of developing countries, food safety, health and the environment. The forum is due to report at the next EU-U.S. Summit, in late 2000. It is planned to complement the intensified high-level interadministration dialogue and the reinforced input from civil society that Prodi and Clinton agreed on at their last summit, in October 1999.
On the thorny issue of trade in agricultural biotechnology products - where EU indecision has led to market access barriers for many U.S. products - "the European Union and United States have begun high-level discussion on regulatory issues, including as an early priority, practical means to facilitate trade in accordance with regulatory requirements of the importing parties. We will report back on these discussions to the next EU-U.S. Summit," the statement said. Over the next six months they will continue regular contacts between senior officials to intensify cooperation on regulatory and other issues, including how to facilitate trade flows for conventional and genetically modified crop varieties approved in both the EU and the U.S.
The U.S. going-in position for the summit was that lack of public confidence in the European food safety system has led to paralysis on approval of biotech foods, which is "significantly undermining progress on food security in developing nations, causing uncertainty in markets around the world and harming U.S. farm exports," according to a background U.S. briefing. The EU's prevention of U.S. corn exports to Spain and Portugal has been costing U.S. producers about $200 million per year in lost sales since 1998, U.S. diplomatic sources said. And they complain that although two new EU labeling regulations came into effect in April, they have not yet been implemented because of the lack of testing methodologies, certifying laboratories and inspection procedures.
By contrast, one of the EU background briefings for the summit - from the European Commission's environment department, warned of risks. "Once a GMO has been released into nature (or brought onto the market), it might prove more successful in evolutionary terms than its natural counterparts. The repercussions of such competition are both unpredictable and irreversible."