By Jon Herskovitz
|Updated 1:42 AM ET July 23, 2000
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
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
"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
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
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.