EU accepts trade ruling on GMOs

To the anger of green NGOs, the EU has decided not to appeal against a WTO ruling which upholds a US-led complaint that it is illegally blocking imports of genetically modified food.

The international trade body found that, that by suspending the approval of all GMO products between 1999 and 2003, the EU had applied a “de facto moratorium” resulting in “undue delay” and thereby breaking trade rules. 

It also ruled that national bans applied on a number of GMO products by six EU member states – Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg – despite the fact that the Commission had approved these products as safe, were in violation of WTO rules. 

Nevertheless, the WTO’s 1,148-page ruling – the longest ever in the history of the WTO – is unlikely to settle transatlantic differences over how the EU currently deals with GMO imports, as it rejected claims that the strict regulations currently applied by the EU on GM food and crops were illegal and refused to rule on the overarching issue of whether biotech foods are safe. 

Thus, while the US claims that the ruling means the EU will now be obliged to speed up its GMO approval system, the EU argues that the panel’s findings are purely “theoretical” as it has already come into compliance by putting an end to its moratorium in 2004 and subsequently allowing a number of GMOs into its market. 

The Commission will nevertheless have to find a way to deal with the issue of national bans, which are still in place. It has asked the plaintiffs to allow it “a reasonable period of time” to work with member states. 

Commission Trade Spokesman Peter Power explained: "The European Commission has decided not to appeal the GMO decision as the current regulatory provisions are not in any way affected by the judgment," adding: "The impact of that judgment is entirely of historical interest." He defended the European system, saying: "The current approval system works, as evidenced by the approval of 10 authorisations since the (WTO dispute) panel was established. More authorisations are in the pipeline." 

Ambassador Peter F. Allgeier, US Trade Representative to the WTO, said: "Although the EC has approved a handful of biotech applications following the initiation of the dispute in 2003, the EC has yet to lift the moratorium in its entirety. Some biotech product applications have been pending for ten years or more, and applications for many commercially important products continue to face unjustified, politically motivated delays." He urged the Commission and member states to comply with the panel findings, which he says "uphold the principle of science based policymaking over unjustified, anti biotech policies". 

Green NGO Friends of the Earth Europe condemned the EU decision not to contest the WTO ruling, warning that this could set "a dangerous precedent for future environmental disputes". Indeed, the group stresses that the UN's Biosafety Protocol - an international agreement on GM products that allows nations to use a precautionary approach and ban GM products if they have concerns about their impacts on health and the environment - was totally ignored by the WTO, despite the fact that the EU is a signatory of this agreement and therefore obliged to follow its rules. 

"This case clearly demonstrates that the WTO is the wrong forum to deal with environmental trade disputes,"said GM Campaigner at FOE Europe Adrian Bebb, adding: "It seems that the EU is happy for the WTO to trample over environmental laws and expose the public and the environment to business interests." 

Trade Policy Advisor at Greenpeace International, Daniel Mittler, criticised the EU for its internal contradictions: "They said to the WTO that genetic engineering is risky and told member states they were safe, and now they have decided not to stand up…The EU has botched its response to the US assault on biosafety from start to finish."

The South Asia Association for Poverty Eradication (SAAPE), expressed concern over the EU's "softened position on GMO, since the increased use of GMO in crops are creating serious ecological, economical and social problems in South Asia".

The case against the EU’s rules for the approving and marketing of biotech products was brought to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in May 2003 by leading GMO producers Argentina, Canada and the United States, which claimed that their farmers were losing millions of euro annually because of the EU. 

On 29 September 2006, the WTO’s dispute-settlement body issued its ruling on the complaints, faulting the EU for "undue delay" in approving GMO products for a four-year period ending in 2003 and accusing a number of member states of maintaining unjustified bans on GMO products already found safe by the EU. 

The EU had until 21 November 2006 to launch an appeal, but decided not to do so. 

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