Euro Nerves Raw At Biotech Conf.

David Potter of Portland, Ore., looks through a cut-out tomato during a peaceful protest opposing the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, outside a supermarket in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday June 24, 2003.
An Italian agriculture official criticized the United States for the notable absence of the European Union at an American-sponsored international conference on biotechnology.

"There are no European ministers at a time when the United States is trying to heal the wounds opened by a war in Iraq," said Tito Barbini, regional agriculture minister in Tuscany, Italy.

Barbini's comments came Tuesday, the second day of the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology. The three-day meeting, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is focused on eliminating world hunger through genetically modified foods and other technologies.

At least 11 protesters outside the conference were arrested Tuesday - including one subdued with a stun gun. About 70 people have been arrested in demonstrations against the conference since Sunday.

Barbini appeared on behalf of the International Forum on Globalization, one of several groups that sees the event as an attempt by corporations to profit by forcing biotechnology on starving nations.

Biotechnology, its supporters say, can reduce hunger, improve nutrition and boost economies by yielding better harvests, reducing pesticide use and preserving the environment.

The European Union banned the import of genetically modified food in 1998; the United States is now demanding that the EU end its ban.

EU ministers were invited to the conference but canceled because the union is closing talks on agricultural reform, said Gerry Kiely, a EU agriculture representative in Washington. He said Germany, France, Spain sent delegates.

Barbini said the EU may reach a compromise with the United States on its ban but wants a system for labeling genetically modified foods, something the industry successfully fought here.

An official with Monsanto Co., one of the world's largest suppliers of herbicides and genetically altered seeds, said his company's products were safe and useful.

"Biotech products, if anything, may be safer than conventional products because of all the testing," said Robert Fraley, Monsanto's executive vice president.

About 51 percent of the world's soybean, 20 percent of cotton and 9 percent of corn are genetically modified.

Bioengineered corn has produced higher profits for farmers in the Philippines and other countries because fewer pesticides were used, Fraley said.

By Kim Baca