Podium: Don't be scared of modified food

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Felix Rohatyn

From a speech by the American ambassador in Paris to the Federation du Credit Agricole, Paris

AGRICULTURE IS at the heart of the US economy. It employs some 20 million people. Agricultural products are our biggest export. The last few years have seen a major shift in American agricultural policy - the greatest change since the Thirties - due to the globalisation of agricultural markets.

American farmers have seen their income suffer as a result of the Russian and Asian financial crises, the abundance of global supply, and the resulting drop in commodity prices. This situation has been exacerbated by recent drought conditions in the United States.

To respond to these hardships, the US government is seeking ways to strengthen the social safety net for American farmers, while preserving the market freedoms gained from reduced government intervention.

France faces a similar challenge: how to encourage dynamism in the agricultural sector and reduce government subsidies, while at the same time providing a safety net for farmers whose livelihood is often threatened by conditions that are beyond their control.

The proper role of biotechnology in agriculture is a particularly delicate issue.

In the United States, we consider the results of biotechnology used in farming to be extremely promising.

Insect-resistant plants and drought-resistant corn are two such examples. In each case, biotechnology has increased output. It has also lowered production costs and reduced the use of pesticides and water, bringing environmental and health benefits to both farmers and consumers.

If we can use biotechnology to increase food stocks and permit crops to grow in harsh climates, we may begin to eliminate the scourge of famine and hunger in the world.

Given this positive point of view, the use of biotechnology in agriculture has expanded rapidly in the US. More than 30 transgenic crops have been approved for sale, including such staples as soybeans, corn, potatoes and canola oil [from oil-seed rape]. Three years ago, not a single genetically engineered crop was planted for commercial use. This year, an estimated 65 million acres world-wide were planted with transgenic seeds, including about a quarter of next year's US corn and one-third of the soybean crops. Experts predict that within 10 years an estimated 95 per cent of America's plant-derived foods will be genetically engineered.

Research is under way on the next generation of foods enhanced by biotechnology that could have real health benefits: meat without cholesterol, oils with less fat, wheat with more protein, to name but a few.

The safety of biotechnology is widely discussed in the European press. Confidence in biotechnology in the United States is due largely to our confidence in the government agencies responsible for food safety. No genetically modified organisms (GMOs) may be used in the United States without meeting strict government requirements. In fact, three federal agencies must review and approve the use of GMOs in the United States. Scientists for regulatory agencies in the European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia, plus the World Health Organisation, have also studied any possible risks - and have determined that the GMOs that are on the market today are safe for human health.

Another reason why American consumers have generally accepted these products is that they aren't really anything new. All plant breeding involves the genetic manipulation of plants. Virtually all of the agricultural products sold and consumed have been altered by this kind of cross-breeding. Genetically modified foods are as safe as the original plants from which the genes were taken. Every country has the right and the responsibility to establish a policy of food labelling.

Since May 1998, the European Union has required the labelling of GMO products as such. However, for the reasons I have just outlined, the United States has taken a different position. We believe, for example, that a type of corn that has been genetically modified to resist drought is no different from a hybrid corn developed to give higher yields, and therefore requires no special label. The difference of opinion on these issues may result from historical and cultural factors, but one thing is clear: American, French and European consumers must have confidence in what they consume, and producers must be responsible for what they produce.

As we seek to meet this common goal, we should open channels of communication, share our scientific findings and isolate our decisions from politics and emotion.