U.S. Challenges Europe's Policy on Biotech Crops

By J.R. Pegg

May 14, 2003 (ENS) - The Bush administration has launched a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union for its five year ban on approving new biotech crops, setting the stage for an international showdown over an increasingly controversial issue. U.S. officials say the European policy is illegal, harming the U.S. economy, stunting the growth of the biotech industry and contributing to increased starvation in the developing world.

The moratorium violates the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), according to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, because the European Union (EU) does not have scientific evidence that there is either a risk to public health or to the environment from biotech - also known as genetically modified (GM) - crops.

"People around the world have been eating biotech food for years," Zoellick said. "Biotech food helps nourish the world's hungry population, offers tremendous opportunities for better health and nutrition and protects the environment by reducing soil erosion and pesticide use."

The European Commission's (EC) own scientific analysis, Zoellick says, finds that a ban on biotech foods is "unwarranted" and the EU's action is impeding the "global use of a technology that could be of great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world."

EU officials say the United States is mischaracterizing its position on biotech foods and that the EU's regulatory system for approving these foods is in line with the WTO's rules. wheat

Genetically modified crops continue to make many people nervous about the health and environmental implications. (Photo courtesy Monsanto)
"It is clear, transparent and non-discriminatory," Lamy said. "There is therefore no issue that the WTO needs to examine."

"The U.S. claim that there is a so-called 'moratorium' but the fact is that the EU has authorized GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications," Lamy said. "So what is the real U.S. motive in bringing a case?"

The EU has refused to grant import licenses for biotech food since October 1998 because many Europeans are worried about possible health and environmental risks. Prior to October 1998 the EU had approved nine agriculture biotech products for planting or import.

Under the WTO, members are allowed to develop their own approval procedures and EU officials say this is what they are doing.

"We have been working hard in Europe to complete our regulatory system in line with the latest scientific and international developments," said EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne. "The finalization process is imminent. This is essential to restore consumer confidence in GMOs in Europe."

EU officials say they will move forward with legislation on traceability and labeling, two issues that have irked Bush administration officials and some supporters of biotech foods who believe these requirements would result in higher food costs for consumers and producers.

Egypt, Argentina and Canada joined the United States in the WTO challenge, with third party support from Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay.

Under WTO rules, the EU and the United States have 60 days to consult before a panel is set up to resolve the dispute. Trade sanctions could be imposed on the EU if the panel rules that its policy is a violation of the WTO.

GM foods are an emotional issue for many people, with issues of economics, public health, environmental protection, national sovereignty and world hunger all playing a role. Although U.S. officials point to each of these issues, it is clear that economics lie at the heart of the decision to formally challenge the EU's policy.

"With this case, we are fighting for the interests of American agriculture," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "This case is about playing by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed to comply with its WTO obligations." Zoellick

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick is confident the United States will prevail with its appeal of the EU biotech policy. (Photo courtesy the White House)
The United States produces some two thirds of the world's biotech crops and U.S. officials estimate the EU ban has cost its agricultural industry hundreds of millions, including some $300 million a year in corn sales alone.

Some 34 percent of U.S. corn is genetically modified, as is some 71 percent of U.S. cotton and 75 percent of U.S. soybeans.

Biotech industry groups strongly supported the decision to challenge EU policy, but critics say the Bush administration and the biotech industry are trying to force consumers to accept GM food.

"The Bush administration is catering to the interests of major biotech corporations rather than human health," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "They have been reduced to using the secretive and undemocratic procedures of the WTO to try to force people into accepting food they do not want."

U.S. officials take issue with this characterization of their policy and argue that there is ample science that there are no health or environmental risks from GM foods.

The United States is not "seeking to force food on consumers in Europe or elsewhere," Zoellick said, but these consumers are not being allowed to choose for themselves because the EU system "blocks their access to food that is safe and healthy."

But as the Bush administration is adamantly opposed to labeling or traceability requirements for foods made with biotech crops, some wonder how consumers would be able to make the choice Zoellick says they are being denied.

And Zoellick's faith in the U.S. regulatory system is not shared by many critics, who believe it is inadequate and relies too much on industry assurances.

"They have no solid scientific basis on which to make their case for these crops," said Blackwelder. "The United States still has no rigorous approval for these foods, and biotech companies have been left to evaluate themselves and the safety of their own products."

Critics contend the health benefits to consumers - and the economic benefits to farmers - espoused by the Bush administration do not match reality. cornwoman

European officials believe the United States is exaggerating the benefits of existing biotech crops to the developing world. (Photo by A.Conti courtesy U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization)
"We have suffered a great deal of damage to our trade markets because agribusiness pushed a product on U.S. farmers that people of the world rightfully refused to accept," said Missouri farmer Bill Christison, speaking on behalf of the National Family Farm Coalition, an organization of grassroots farm, resource conservation, and rural advocacy groups from 33 states.

Of all the debates around biotech foods, none are as contentious as the U.S. position that the EU ban has undermined efforts to provide food aid to millions of starving people in the developing world.

Several African nations, such as Zambia and Zimbabwe, have rejected U.S. food aid because it contained GM corn. These countries fear the GM corn could end up in crops or be fed to beef cattle tagged for export to Europe, which could then reject the African imports.

Despite U.S. criticism, many countries as well as United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, have supported the right of African nations to ban GM foods and have pledged aid to help fill the void.

EU officials say the U.S. position that EU policy is keeping food aid from starving populations is disingenuous and that the GM debate should be kept separate.

The Bush administration is overselling the benefits of biotech crops in the developing world as a way to force global acceptance, EU officials say.

They point out that GM crops of interest to developing countries, such as drought tolerant or acid soil tolerant crops, are sill in laboratories.

Of the commercially available biotech crops, 75 percent are herbicide tolerant and 17 percent are insect resistant, neither of which are of particular use to developing countries in need of more stable food supplies, according to EU officials.

The EU, unlike the United States, supports the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is designed to ensure that countries, exporters and importers have the necessary information to make informed choices about biotech foods. More than 100 nations have signed onto the protocol.

EU officials insist the organization's regulatory system will be driven by science, not economics, and say that the U.S. decision to challenge its policy through the WTO will prove counterproductive.

"This U.S. move is unhelpful," said EU Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom. "It can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult."