Upholding suit to end ban on GMOs

by Morton Sosland
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Even though many experts, regardless of what position they take, are fearful of the outcome, the globe-circling grain industry has reason to wish, and even to hope, that the confrontation set in motion aimed at resolving the safety of genetically modified organisms will help bring resolution to this increasingly threatening issue. The United States, supported by a coalition of other exporting as well as importing countries, filed suit in the World Trade Organization to challenge the moratorium the European Union first imposed five years ago to prohibit imports of GMOs. Filing of the suit means that the WTO will have to name expert panels to consider the complex issues, preceded first by two months of negotiations aimed at resolving the disagreement.

Having delayed this action late last year in order to prevent this issue from affecting collaboration in the war on Iraq, the U.S. Trade Representative, Robert B. Zoellick, proceeded to file suit, expressing total frustration with the lack of action on the part of the E.U. to lift its moratorium. The latter not only puts a brake on imports, but has severely restricted development work on biotechnology within the E.U. Equally worrying for the parties that joined the United States in this action was the impact the E.U. stance was having on attitudes toward GMOs in developing countries. Instances have occurred where nations in urgent need of food aid have rejected offers from the U.S. because shipments would include GMOs; in other examples, developing countries have voiced alarm about possible contamination of local production. "The human cost of rejecting this new technology is enormous," Zoellick declared.

Joining in the suit were Argentina, Canada and Egypt. Third-party support came from these countries that do not have a direct commercial interest: Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay. In the U.S., Zoellick was strongly supported by leading Republicans in the Congress. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman noted, "With this case, we are fighting for the interests of American agriculture."

To no one’s surprise, the E.U. said it was "dumfounded" by the suit, pointing to the efforts that have been under way to lift the moratorium, which it insists on calling de facto. Pascal Lamy, E.U. commissioner for trade, denied that the Union was in violation of WTO rules, insisting that efforts were under way that would open the market to genetically modified crops, as long as appropriate labeling steps were taken, and that traceability, back to origins, was a part of food being offered to consumers. These requirements, though, also face a strong U.S. challenge, based on the high cost and technical difficulties in meeting such requirements.

Warnings from various parties about the danger from filing the suit in the WTO centered on issues like the WTO’s ability even to handle such a confrontation between its two largest members. Others make the point that even if America should prevail — and there are many reasons to doubt such an outcome — that this would be the worst of possible outcomes, no better than a Pyrrhic victory, as that description is used. The reason for this assertion is that European consumers must be persuaded to accept GMOs as being totally safe, and that a ruling to that effect from the WTO would only undermine what value remains in that organization to resolve difficult trade disputes between member countries. In light of the difficult relationships that evolved in regard to the war in Iraq, it’s not surprising that warnings were being sounded that the GMO conflict, extending beyond negotiations between the two parties themselves, might serve to exacerbate the tearing apart of long-standing ties between countries.

Yet, while sympathizing with all these alarms and warnings — some call it a transatlantic train collision and another saw it as two elephants fighting — anyone who has followed this disagreement over the years has to recognize that talk has not produced a settlement. Biotechnology itself is winning the day among producers and producing countries, except for Europe, and yet there’s a need for some sort of official declaration that these crops not only do not pose a danger, but actually offer the best answer possible to the world food needs. Tortuous negotiations have gone nowhere. It’s now time for the only "court of law" available in a trade dispute to be asked to decide this matter. This is a sore in the side of global trade that needs remedying as quickly as possible.