David Hencke and Rob Evans
President Clinton was briefed to put intensive pressure on Tony Blair to open up Britain and Europe to US genetically modified food and crops during private talks at the Downing Street summit in 1998, papers released to the Guardian revealed yesterday.
And within 24 hours of US protests, Britain had acted to modify proposals to try to open the way for more GM food being sold in Britain and the rest of the European Union.
The approach, which was never made public, was timed for three separate meetings - two in Downing Street's state dining room, and at Dunbar Court in the foreign office, at the EU summit on May 18.
Documents released to the Guardian under the US freedom of information act reveal President Clinton was briefed to warn Mr Blair - who then held the EU presidency - that "the EU's slow and non-transparent approval process for genetically modified organisms has cost US exporters hundreds of millions in lost sales."
It goes on: "In the spirit of increased US-EU regulatory cooperation, we urge the EU to take immediate action to ensure that these products receive a timely review."
Papers for the meeting show the same complaints were put to President Jacques Santer, then head of the European Commission, and Sir Leon Brittan, then EU foreign affairs commissioner.
The papers show more detailed complaints were put to Margaret Beckett, then trade secretary, and Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, by William Daley, the US trade secretary, and Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, at meetings in the foreign office and Downing Street that morning.
Participating in the talks were the co-chairmen of the Transatlantic Business Dialogue - a lobbying organisation - Lodewijk de Vink, chief executive of Warner-Lambert (now Time-Warner), the US in ternational media company, and Juergen Schrempp, chief executive of Daimler-Benz, the car makers, who back deregulation of European-US trade.
The papers show that not only did the US attack the EU over the slow approval of GM crops but it criticised the labelling of GM foods.
The brief reads: "Differences among member states over labelling have been an impediment to reforming the approval process. We will be watching the commission's efforts to implement its new guidelines for labelling and we hope the EU can now move quickly to complete review of the products in the pipeline.
"That said, the US sees no reason to label a product simply because it has been genetically engineered. Mandatory labelling of GMOs should be based on sound science."
The next day the Financial Times reported that the UK presidency had brought forward proposals to scrap plans for labelling food saying "it may contain GM ingredients" which had created an impasse with national governments. The UK government - in line with US policy - proposed to limit the products that could be labelled as containing US soya bean derivatives.
DOWNING STREET DENIED ANY AMERICAN PRESSURE.
Last night the Guardian's disclosure was welcomed by Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth campaigner on GM food. He said: " The government has repeatedly denied in private and public that the US has ever raised or tried to put pressure on the government over GM food. These previously secret briefing papers suggest the opposite occurred."
The papers also show that neither John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, who had overall responsibility for the environment, nor Michael Meacher, the environment minister in charge of GM crops, were invited to these discussions.
The briefing papers will be banned under home secretary Jack Straw's freedom of information bill until 2029.
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Last Updated on 3/4/00
By Rachel C. Benbrook