Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 16 News List

The New World and the Old square off over agriculture

The US is pressuring the EU to approve open its doors to modified foods and is using the Czech Republic as a key

, BRNO, CZECH REPUBLIC

While the US swings a big stick in its campaign for approval of genetically modified foods in the European Union, a more subtle form of lobbying is nudging Brussels from the east.

The quiet pressure revolves around a small crop experiment in the Moravia region in the south of the Czech Republic, where the US agri-giant Monsanto has been testing a new variety of insect resistant GM corn for three growing seasons.

It's a field test that, despite heated opposition from environmentalists and organic food growers, has brought this soon-to-be EU member country a step away from approving the company's pending applications to register GM crops for import, export, growing and processing in the Czech Republic.

GM promoters and particularly Monsanto, whose bio-engineered products are responsible for 95 percent of the world's GM crops, are counting on support for the controversial crops in eastern Europe to strengthen its business across the continent.

In addition, the growing acceptance of genetically altered crops in the Czech Republic and several neighbors from the former Soviet bloc has given the US government extra ammunition in its ongoing, trans-Atlantic battle against the EU's GM opponents.

A few GM applications have been approved and registered in the past three years by governments in EU candidate countries including the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia.

This spring, for example, Slovakia granted a registration request for importing GM corn for food and livestock feed. Monsanto is asking the Czech government to approve its full-scope registration application by autumn harvest before the country enters the EU in May next year.

Czech Environment Minister Libor Ambrozek is scheduled to make a final decision based on the findings of a national science commission, which is currently reviewing Monsanto's application. If he approves the request within a few months, as expected, the company would have permission to begin full-scale growing tests of new GM varieties next spring and sell the seed to Czech farmers three years later.

Monsanto's two hectare test in Moravia is a demonstration plot for a new type of corn called "Bt" maize, the company's Prague spokeswoman Miluse Kusendova said. The corn was genetically altered to resist the European corn borer, an insect that eats holes in leaves and stalks.

It was engineered specifically for farms in the southern Moravia region although the variety may do well on Slovak, Austrian and Hungarian farms that have similar climate conditions, Kusendova said.

"Because of the corn borer, many farmers would like to have this product," she said.

Since the experiment began, the test plot has been a popular attraction for local farmers who are curious about GM technology and may want to plant or buy GM seed in future. It's also been a site for protest rallies organized by anti-GM groups.

As in other parts of Europe, Czech opposition to Monsanto's plans has been well organized and vocal. Farm groups such as Pro-Bio and Czech members of Greenpeace fear GM crops will upset nature's balance and contaminate organic farms. They also fear negative impacts of GM foods on human health.

At a conference in the Czech Republic last month, groups representing organic farmers from 11 countries including six EU newcomers passed a resolution urging the EU to clarify all matters surrounding the safety of GM crops.

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