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Food safety too politicised, claims think-tank


Food safety is making international headlines as the United States and the European Union continue to take dramatically different positions over this contentious issue. A food policy think-tank raises concerns that these transatlantic conflicts are having adverse effects on developing countries.

The collision of biotechnology, food safety, and international trade are at the forefront of global debate, writes the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) recently gathered together.

In recent weeks US President George W. Bush accused the European Union of contributing to famine in Africa by opposing technology to genetically modify foods, fast-food giant McDonald's requested that their meat suppliers stop using antibiotics on animals, and protests surrounded the Sacramento ministerial conference on agricultural science and technology organised last month by the US Department of Agriculture.

But, warns the group, although much of the discussion centres on conflicting US and EU policies, hunger is the bottom line for millions of poor people in developing countries.

The Washington-based group recently gathered together policymakers, including Renate Kuenast, Germany's Federal Minister for Consumer Protection and Agriculture and Lester M. Crawford, Deputy Commissioner at the United States Food and Drug Administration, to focus attention on how conflict over food safety affects developing countries.

One key point arising out of the meeting was that conflict between the two economic superpowers is further dampening market prospects for poor countries. As Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa of Uganda pointed out, conflicts and obstacles stemming from different perceptions of food safety "remain one of the major constraints to [achieving] food security and maximising the benefits of free trade" in the global economy.

Renate Kuenast added that addressing and resolving disputes now was vital because of the upcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations in Cancun, Mexico, in September.

For Esther Brimmer, deputy director and director of research at the SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations, the fact that food safety issues have been politicised means that they are more difficult to talk about.

"It is harder to discuss these issues because of the rawness of the political sensitivity, but it's also very important because of the value of cultural choices," she commented.

Lester Crawford stressed that politicisation had in fact caused the conflict of understanding in the first place. In light of this, he emphasised the importance of the World Economic Forum and other events that gather stakeholders together.

"Even if they don't reach consensus," he said at least "they are discussing the issues."

Beyond reaching consensus on food safety issues, Wilberforce Kisamba-Mugerwa, Minister of Agriculture, Uganda pointed out the need to build capacity in developing countries in the field of biotechnology.

Other participants concurred, though Luis P. Lorenzo, Secretary of Agriculture of the Philippines added that each country had to define capacity building for itself. Walter Ruiz, Vice Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, Costa Rica noted that developed countries should not lose sight of the needs of the smaller developing countries.

The panelists finished on a cautious, but positive, note. They agreed that all parties must continue efforts to reach consensus if problems of food safety, food security, and trade are to be resolved.

Rodney Brown, USDA Deputy Under Secretary stressed the importance of taking a long-term view to reach agreements. Renate Kuenast agreed, adding that the WTO meetings in Cancun would be only one step toward resolving conflict.

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