U.S. To file against E.U. over GMOs

by Emily Buckley
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WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — The United States, Argentina, Canada and Egypt are to file a World Trade Organization case against the European Union over what they allege is the E.U.’s illegal five-year moratorium on approving agricultural biotech products. The European Commission said it regretted the move, describing it as "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful."

Other countries expressing support for this case by joining it as third parties include Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay.

"The E.U.’s moratorium violates WTO rules," U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said. "We’ve waited patiently for five years for the E.U. to follow the WTO rules and the recommendations of the European Commission, so as to respect safety findings based on careful science.

E.U. Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy refuted these claims, saying the E.U.’s regulatory system for GMO’s authorization was in line with WTO rules: "It is clear, transparent and non-discriminatory," he said, "there is therefore no issue that the WTO needs to examine. The fact is that the E.U. has authorized GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications. So what is the real U.S. motive in bringing a case?" Lamy said.

The WTO agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) recognizes that countries are entitled to regulate crops and food products to protect health and the environment. But the WTO SPS agreement requires that members have "sufficient scientific evidence" for such measures and that they operate their approval procedures without "undue delay," U.S. officials noted. Before 1999, the E.U. approved nine agriculture GM products for planting or import. It then suspended consideration of all new applications for approval and has offered no scientific evidence for this moratorium on new approvals, the U.S. officials noted.

David Byrne, E.U. Commissioner for Health and Consumer protection said that the E.U. had been working hard to complete its regulatory system in line with the latest scientific and international developments and that the finalization process was imminent.

"This is essential to restore consumer confidence in GMO’s in Europe," Byrne said, adding that consumer resistance, not E.U. policy, lay behind a lack of demand for GMOs in the E.U. market. "Unless consumers see that the authorization process is up to date and takes into account all legitimate concerns, consumers will continue to remain skeptical of GM products."

E.U. Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom called the U.S. move "unhelpful."

"It can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult," she said. "But in the meantime, the Commission strongly believes that we in Europe should move ahead with completing our legislation on traceability and labeling and on food and feed, currently before the European Parliament. We should not be deflected or distracted from pursuing the right policy for the E.U."

More than 145 million acres (58 million hectares) of GM crops were grown in the world in 2002. Worldwide, about 45% of soy, 11% of maize, 20% of cotton and 11% of rapeseed are GM crops. In the United States, 75% of soy, 34% of maize and 71% of cotton are biotech crops.