Europe's biotech bans in WTO firing line
The EU's chronic incapacity to lift national bans on GMO products is under intense scrutiny by the World Trade Organisation. But EU officials insist that the present biotech approval rules, in place since 2004, fully comply with WTO requirements.
The preliminary findings of a WTO dispute panel, circulated on Tuesday (7 February), appear to support the US in a dispute with the EU over the approval of biotech food (EurActiv, 8 Feb. 2006).
The 1,050 page document, the largest ever to come out of a WTO dispute panel, concluded that the EU moratorium on GM products, effective between October 1999 and August 2003, was illegal.
New EU rules to approve GM products were agreed in 2004, partly to address US concerns. But the US claimed that the approval procedure is still too lengthy and "not based on scientific evidence" as required by the WTO.
Eight GMO bans are still in place in Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Greece despite scientific approval from the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). The Commission repeatedly attempted to lift these bans but was unable to do so because of a loophole in the procedure.
Under the EU's current rules, national bans can only be lifted if they are backed by a committee of national experts or, in the last resort, by the member states in the EU Council of Ministers. If member states fail to reject or uphold the ban, the matter is referred to the EFSA for a further opinion and fed back to the Commission for a further round of expert advice and member state approval.
It is still unclear whether the WTO panel's final decision, due out early next year at the latest, would call into question this procedure.
The United States, joined by Argentina and Canada, brought a challenge to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2003. The complainants asserted that the EU had been in violation of international trade rules since 1998 by imposing a moratorium on GM crops, contrary to scientific advice that they presented no health or safety risk. They complained that the EU had set no deadline to lift the moratorium.
Between 1997 and 2000, Austria, France, Germany, Greece, and Luxembourg imposed individual bans on GM crops that had secured approval by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA). The bans were imposed on a temporary basis using a so-called "national safeguard clause" that EU member states can invoke when they have doubts about the products' safety for human health or the environment.
EU officials on Wednesday (8 February) insisted that the WTO report only "concerns the past, i.e. the period preceding the adoption of the new Community legislation in 2004".
"This means that the EU regulatory system will not need to be modified and that we will continue to put GMOs on the market," the officials said.
However, on the national bans, the officials did recognise that "the Panel considers that their maintenance has not been justified on scientific grounds". One official admitted in private that, from a legal point of view, the Commission's chronic incapacity to enforce orders to lift national bans could possibly be an issue.
The US appears to be making much of this point, with trade officials pointing out that, "the commission [...] is responsible for the implementation of EU treaties and decisions".
US trade officials even seem to suggest that the EU intentionally designed a system that was not operational. "By not allowing its approval system to operate, the EU has imposed undue delays on biotech approvals, resulting in extensive delays and preventing the marketing of many crops grown in the United States," according to the US Trade Representative.
EU biotech association EuropaBio insists that "the dispute over biotech crops is not about safety", the crops having "passed stringent food, feed and environmental safety standards". It said that, "like the European Commission", the biotech industry supports "the choice to grow, import and conume approved GM products". "Countries that do not implement the EU rules, which they themselves put in place, are denying that choice," it said.
Meanwhile, environmental NGOs "condemned the secrecy of the WTO [procedures] and called on governments to ensure that complex health and environmental decisions are taken in a transparent manner".
"The WTO is keeping its draft ruling secret. This sums up everything that is wrong with the WTO. It is secretive, undemocratic and biased towards business interests," said Alexandra Wandel, trade coordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe.
"The US administration and agro-chemical companies brought the case in a desperate attempt to force-feed markets with GMOs. But consumers, citizens and farmers around the world do not want GMOs and this ruling will change none of that," said Daniel Mittler, trade policy advisor at Greenpeace International.
- The EU, US, Canada and Argentina have several weeks to submit comments on the interim report
- End 2006 - early 2007: WTO to issue final decision