Monday, December 27, 2004

Conscience money

No one but the hardest-hearted could do anything other than applaud the decision of the EU to send €3 million aid to help the victims of the tsunami which hit southern Asia on Sunday, with a death toll running into thousands.

While every little helps however, one cannot escape the thought that this is merely gesture politics, not least as the Australian government has pledged twice that – over €7 million - in immediate aid and like sums are pouring in from all over the world in cash and in kind.

But if such a comparison does strike a sour note, then it is well merited as the damage the EU does over term to third world economies is in no way compensated for by occasional largess, offered as high profile donations in times of emergency.

This is brought home by a feature article today on the CNN website, which explores the effects of EU trade policies and restrictions on the agricultural economy of Peru.

Such is the obsession with "health 'n' safety", observes scientist Michael Hermann of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute in Colombia, that if the humble potato, discovered in Peru by the Spanish conquistadors five centuries ago, has only been discovered today, it would almost certainly have been banned from entering the EU market.

That is because potatoes can be toxic, and though they have been an integral part of the South American diet for hundreds of years, they would not pass muster now if measured against the European Union's strict standards for new foods, says Hermann. Furthermore, wheat, a staple that can trigger allergies to gluten, would probably also be vetoed, he adds.

The issue is far from academic, as there are many other plant varieties in Peru, commonly consumed by natives, which are as exotic abroad as potatoes once were. They could also find big markets among European shoppers if they could get through the door but current restrictions prevent their exploitation.

Many have health properties that are recognized locally. One is Yacon, a sweet root said to be beneficial to diabetics; another, the fruit camu camu, has at least 30 times the vitamin C content of oranges, and the oil from the sacha inchi vine is rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids that can protect the heart and lower cholesterol.

Although yacon and camu camu are already sold in Japan and the United States, full EU entry is on hold, pending approval under the Novel Food Regulation. That law requires extensive scientific data as proof that foods not widely known in an EU country before May 1997 can be deemed safe.

The approval process is also time-consuming. Exporters say it can take years and cost around $100,000 - prohibitive for small companies trying to market niche products that often lack scientific studies to back them up. Michael Hermann believes the novel food law places an "unreasonably high burden of proof" on producers.

Yet the authentic voice of the EU commission is pitiless: "We cannot lower our guard," says commission spokesman Philip Tod. "If you don't have the (scientific) data, we can't waive our safety rules," he adds. "The Commission can't cut corners with public health, however laudable the intention."

This is a man who, from the comfort of his Brussels base, supports a system that denies Andean farmers the opportunity to better themselves, in an area where more than half the population lives on $1.25 a day or less. The value to Peru of an EU market in such novel foods is estimated to be worth $10 million a year.

Against that, the one-off donation of €3 million to the stricken countries of south Asia is indeed little more than a gesture – almost conscience money – for, while this gift grabs the headlines, behind the scenes the damage done far outweighs what little support the EU has offered.

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