St. Louis Post Dispatch, Thursday, May 13, 1999

Ashcroft is among senators who want biotechnology on G-8 summit agenda
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Bill Lambrecht, Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- With wariness of genetic engineering growing abroad, Sen. John Ashcroft and Senate leaders are pressing a reluctant Clinton administration to make biotechnology a top issue when world leaders gather for a summit meeting in Germany next month.

In a letter scheduled to be delivered today to President Bill Clinton, Ashcroft, R-Mo., and some of the Senate's most powerful members urge the president to force the issue among heads of state because ongoing European restrictions pose "a substantial, immediate threat" to U.S. farm exports.

"It is essential that we build a consensus at the highest political levels with our major trading partners to prevent unjustified barriers to trade in agricultural biotechnology products," a draft of the letter reads.

In an interview, Ashcroft noted that St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. and farmers in Missouri and throughout the Midwest stand to lose big unless current European bars are lifted. "America is the leader here, and Missouri happens to be at the front of the parade," he said.

Among those signing Ashcroft's letter are Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D.; Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Agriculture Committee; and Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The G-8 Summit of industrialized nations will take place June 18-20 in Cologne, Germany, and is expected to focus heavily on issues related to war in the Balkans. The eight nations are the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Canada and Russia.

Members of Congress have joined farm leaders and representatives from industry in pressing to elevate genetic engineering issues at the global meeting. So far, the White House has not agreed. In their letter, Ashcroft and the senators also request that Clinton ask each country in next month's summit meeting to appoint senior officials to take up the issue of genetically modified crops.

The letter suggests the disputes could lead to complaints to the World Trade Organization, which adjudicates allegations of unfair trade barriers. An administration official said he believed that the summit "may not be the forum for making progress." Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the official observed that the G-8 conference includes countries where genetic engineering debates are heated. In Japan, for instance, government officials are demanding labeling and even separation of genetically modified products.

"We're looking for areas for opportunities to advance more constructive, science-based review processes," the official said. "It's our view that this particular forum comes at the wrong time with the wrong participants."

Monsanto Co. is the leader in applying genetic technologies to farming. In the United States, the modified products of Monsanto and its rivals are winning acceptance among farmers and getting little negative attention from consumers. But the situation is different in Europe and Asia. In many nations, people see genetic engineering as an unproven technology that could have consequences for the environment and consumers. People also fear the growing power of a handful of companies to exert control over what farmers grow and what people eat.

In Europe, those concerns have added up to costly delays in winning approval for growing most gene-altered products and for importing varieties of modified corn grown in the Midwest. Seven varieties of modified corn available for planting in the United States this season have not been approved for import into Europe, which could translate to $200 million worth of lost exports, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington.

The situation has grown especially troubling for Monsanto in Britain. The company has been buffeted by setbacks and denounced by public figures that include Prince Charles and Paul McCartney. Last month, Unilever and Nestle, two of Europe's largest food retailers, announced that their outlets in the United Kingdom would not sell genetically modified foods.

With no end in sight to the foreign problems, Lugar's spokesman, Andrew Fisher, said he sees more farm-state senators getting motivated about a perplexing issue. "The Europeans are fine with biotechnology when it comes to pharmaceuticals or growing new livers and things like that. But if it has to do with corn and soybeans, they go ballistic," he said.

Ashcroft said Congress must play a stronger role in finding solutions and that he will be working to build a coalition to keep up the pressure. "I intend not only to fight hard but to get other senators totally aware of this," Ashcroft said.