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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Alan Larson, Under Secretary of State
for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs

Remarks, Consumer Federation of America
Washington, DC, April 17, 2000
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Biotechnology: Challenge and Opportunity

Good morning. I am pleased to be with you today to discuss the challenge and opportunity of biotechnology in agriculture. As Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs, I meet often with business and farm groups. I also regard consumer advocacy groups to be very important constituents for me for at least two reasons. First, in a market economy, consumers are sovereign; their spending decisions are the final word that determines what goods and services the economy produces and how it produces them. Second, in their role as voters, consumers help determine how government policy -- in such areas as regulation and trade -- affect the economy.

In recognition of these essential roles, I recently accepted responsibility for coordinating the U.S.Government's interaction with the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD). I am working to make sure that U.S. Government agencies address the views and recommendations of the TACD on a range of consumer issues. At the same time, I am looking for ways of strengthening cooperation between consumer advocacy groups and the State Department.

Turning to the specific issue of biotechnology in agriculture, I would like to address the respective roles and responsibilities of governments and consumer groups. When society is confronted by a promising new technology with broad application, there can be concerns as well as opportunities. I will touch briefly on food safety, on the role of precaution, and on the environmental, economic, ethical, and foreign policy aspects of biotechnology. Living, as we are, in a globalizing world, biotechnology has an international, indeed a global, dimension.

Addressing Food Safety Issues

When it comes to food, safety must be the starting point. American consumers demand the highest standards of food safety. Public officials from President Clinton on down have pledged to provide it. U.S. regulations on food safety have been based on high scientific standards and on the intelligent use of precaution in risk assessment and risk management. Our food safety system may not be perfect -- nothing is -- but we believe it is the best in the world and we are determined to do what it takes to make it even better. Foreign consumers of U.S. food products in foreign markets should rest assured that our products are safe and that the U.S. Government intends to keep them that way.

When it comes to the issue of food produced with the aid of modern biotechnology, U.S. regulators and international organizations such as Codex Alimentarius -- a technical body sponsored by the World Health Organization (WTO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) -- have concluded that the biotech foods now on the market are as safe as their conventional counterparts. On April 6, 2000, the independent National Academy of Sciences published an exhaustive study that confirmed that the existing biotech foods are as safe as traditional foods.

Governments and consumer information groups, both here and abroad, have an obligation to disseminate this information so that consumers can make informed choices when they visit the supermarket or petition their governments. Up to now, this responsibility has not been fully carried out in Europe. There, the lack of a credible, apolitical, independent, and science-based food safety system has led to food safety scandals that, in turn, have diminished public confidence in government regulation. Europe's mishandling of real food safety issues such as dioxin and "mad cow" disease has created a climate in which some consumers have unwarranted doubts about food produced with the benefit of modern biotechnology. Indeed, some consumers in Europe appear to harbor doubts about the relevance of science itself. These problems have been exacerbated by the media and private groups who sensationalized and distorted the public debate through such slogans as "Frankenfoods."

In such a climate, European Governments have been unwilling to carry out their responsibility to permit the importation of varieties of American biotech corn that the appropriate European scientific and regulatory bodies already have approved for sale in Europe. These actions are deeply troubling. They are inconsistent with a stable, rules-based system of trade in food products. Moreover, they represent a further example of the same politicized, unscientific approach that has done so much to undermine the confidence of consumers in Europe. It is imperative that Europe establish a predictable, apolitical system, that helps inform consumers and focuses on maintaining high food safety standards. We welcome recent efforts to do this.

In addressing the doubts of some European consumers, Americans must recognize that arguments about our rights under the trading system will carry weight only if supplemented by information and education. Originating as I do in the American farm belt, I know that American farmers are committed to providing consumers with the highest quality and safest products. And farmers recognize that judgments about quality and safety ultimately will be made by consumers. Our shared responsibility is to do everything possible to ensure that these are informed choices.

For that reason we welcome public debate. In January, our Ambassador in the Hague hosted a well-attended conference on these issues. The recent OECD-UK conference in Edinburg was a most constructive event. Now we are working with the Commission of the European Union to establish a "Consultative Forum" that would address the broad range of issues raised in biotechnology, with a focus on this issue of agriculture biotechnology.

Addressing Risk, Precaution and Consumer Choice

Two subjects on which we greatly need a more-reasoned discussion are risk and precaution. We must avoid the misleading quest for absolutes. There is no human activity that is risk-free and there is no subject on which knowledge is certain. Each of us makes decisions every day that involve the balancing of risks and rewards in the face of less than perfect knowledge. In areas like food safety, we rely on regulators to establish rational systems for assessing and managing risks. In the United States that role is played principally by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the concept of precaution is built into the processes of the FDA. Nothing is gained by a sterile exchange of slogans, with one side shouting "science-based" and the other shouting "precautionary principle."

My own reservations about Europe's "precautionary principle" center not on the principle of precaution but on Europe's failure thus far to define "the precautionary principle" in a way that does not open the door to cavalier, arbitrary or unpredictable decisions. Most consumers and producers would agree that regulators are justified in removing a product from the market if the evidence suggests there is a serious risk that it is dangerous, even if there is no "scientific certainty;" in that sense, we all support precaution.

At the same time, to say that a product can be withheld from the market until there is scientific certainty that it is absolutely risk-free is to set a standard that cannot be met in this world. If such a principle were to take hold, there would be little to stop groups from moving to block imports of French wines, Swedish cars, or European airplanes from their markets on the grounds that none of them can be proven to be absolutely risk-free. A more sensible starting point is assess and manage risks in a rational manner that is not protectionist and that is transparent. We welcome the opportunity for a dialogue on this subject.

At the same time, we urge Europe to move quickly to permit entry into Europe's markets of the biotech products that already have been approved by European regulatory bodies. We also urge Europe to move quickly to introduce a rational Europe-wide food safety regime that incorporates scientific approaches to risk assessment and risk management. The EU appears to be moving down the road of mandatory labeling. There are several issues that need to be thought through. In light of the strong evidence that there is not a food safety problem with biotech food now on the market, one can fairly ask how a mandatory government labeling regime can avoid sending false signals on benefits or risks.

If a significant group of consumers decide they want non-biotech products, the market will make them available. Already there are grain elevators in my home state of Iowa that are exclusively dedicated to supplying non-biotech soy beans to Japan for use in tofu. Voluntary labeling, so long as it is truthful, may be a promising way of accommodating consumer choice. The current USDA supported program on organic-free food, which is defined to mean biotech free, may be a model. Any labeling program, whether voluntary or mandatory, must be credible. This includes having quantitative thresholds that are reasonable and can be achieved in the marketplace, as well as a credible and predictable testing protocol.

Addressing Environmental Issues

I will be relatively brief in addressing the environmental issues, not because they are unimportant, but because in this area my colleague Frank Loy has the responsibility and depth that I lack. The previously cited National Academy of Sciences study, which did not find a food safety problem with biotech food, did suggest the need for a greater consideration of environmental risks. In this regard, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently has taken steps, including recommended buffer zones around biotech crops. On the international front, the Biosafety Protocol that Under Secretary Loy and his team negotiated provides a framework for addressing the international biodiversity issues that may be presented by biotechnology in agriculture.

We should also recognize the environmental benefits that appear to be available as a result of biotechnology agriculture. For starters, raising the world's necessary food supply with less herbicides and pesticides is certainly an advantage. The excessive use of such chemicals can cause persistent pollution of soils and contribute to pollution of water. More generally, to the extent that biotechnology agriculture can increase yields and supply the world's necessary food using less land, especially environmentally fragile lands, the environment will benefit.

Addressing Economic Issues

Turning to economic issues, consumers have a strong interest in the continuation of a rules-based, science-based approach to trade in agriculture. Food production per capita has risen by 25% since 1990. Global food trade and new technologies have kept prices down and kept hunger in check in most countries. Biotechnology can help ensure that food prices remain affordable and that food availability continues to expand. In this way, biotechnology can make a valuable contribution to alleviating global poverty.

Technological advance, open markets and trade are powerful forces that make the economy more dynamic and increase the range of choice for consumers. Europe is experiencing high unemployment rates and lagging performance in high technology. We believe this is directly related to Europe's decision to keep unwarranted quantities of labor and capital tied up in highly protected industries such as agriculture and steel, while new industries are stifled by lack of capital and by inflexible regulatory structures. European consumers would benefit in many ways if Europe would reduce the protectionism inherent in the Common Agricultural Policy. More generally, consumers are by far the greatest beneficiaries of global trade. I hope consumers, both here and throughout the world, will be among its strongest supporters.

There are, of course, economic questions about biotechnology. One concern is intellectual property. Without strong protection of intellectual property, the private sector will not be able to devote the resources necessary to make technological advances, including advances in biotechnology. The market, supported by appropriate intellectual property rights protection, can harness the profit mechanism to create new products that benefit humanity. At the same time, there is a public interest in encouraging new knowledge to evolve in a manner that meets pressing public needs. Golden rice is a new, vitamin-A enriched biotech product that can protect against deficiencies causing blindness in many thousands of children worldwide. It is an example of the contribution of not-for-profit research. Monsanto's announcement on April 7, 2000 that it will share information on the rice genome is an important step toward involving developing countries in the search for new varieties appropriate to their needs. There may be other opportunities for public-private partnerships, including with foundations and universities.

Addressing Ethical Issues

In preparing the mandate for the proposed U.S.-EU Consultative Forum, the United States supported inclusion of persons who would speak to the ethical issues raised by biotechnology. Among the ethical issues that could be discussed, I would like to suggest two.

The first is the importance of transparency and honesty. If we are to make the right choices, we need more trust and less suspicion. To facilitate the type of dialogue that builds trust, Secretary of State Albright has directed me to set up within the State Department an advisory committee on biotechnology that will help us consider how best to conduct our international diplomacy on this issue. We want to have an open process that includes broad representation from all interested groups. We will use the internet to ensure that those who cannot be present for all meetings can be part of the virtual dialogue.

The instantaneous flow of discourse through the internet imposes a high standard of honesty on all who use it. False or misleading comments can ricochet around the world instantly. All who want to maintain their credibility, whether in government, business or NGOs, will need to do our best to keep the debate on a rational, factual basis.

A second ethical issue is that of the haves and have nots. Biotechnology has great potential to advance food security in poor countries, improve health and nutrition, alleviate hunger and reduce poverty. I am heartened by the promise of golden rice, of nutriceuticals, of vaccines bundled in bananas, and of biotech products that facilitate distribution in countries without adequate refrigeration. It is important that we develop the right policies and public-private partnerships to ensure that these possibilities are realized. This is likely to require public research, capacity building in developing countries, and cooperation among private companies, foundations and governments. I encourage the private sector to take the lead in ensuring that this technology serves both public and private ends. I also encourage skeptics in rich countries to address the ethical consequences of their efforts to shut down this technology.

Addressing the Foreign Policy Issues

In today's globalizing, post Cold War world, the center of foreign policy is shifting. To be sure, the welcome ratification of Salt II by the Russian Duma reminds us that terms like "throw-weight" cannot yet be thrown out of our foreign affairs vocabulary. But it is equally true that today's foreign affairs agenda features much more prominently such issues as biotechnology and information technology, the fight against disease and crime, and the search for fair rules to govern international trade and investment. All this means that business, agriculture, labor, and consumer issues now are on the front lines of foreign policy. So we must intensify the dialogue between the State Department and these groups. I look forward to doing so in the days ahead.

In today's globalizing, post-Cold War world, the center of foreign policy is shifting. To be sure, the welcome ratification of Salt II by the Russian Duma reminds us that terms like "throw-weight" cannot yet be thrown out of our foreign affairs vocabulary. But it is equally true that today's foreign affairs agenda features much more prominently such issues as biotechnology and information technology, the fight against disease and crime and the search for fair rules to govern international trade and investment. All this means that business, agriculture, labor and consumer issues now are on the front lines of foreign policy. So we must intensify the dialogue between the State Department and these groups. I look forward to doing so in the days ahead.

[end of document]

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