EU Ban on Biotech Crops Illegal, Rules WTO

Published December 1, 2006

The European Union (EU) had no scientific basis for imposing a moratorium on genetically modified crops, and therefore the ban is illegal, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled on September 29.

Moratoria, Bans Halted

The EU measure, which essentially banned new genetically improved foods by setting a moratorium on approving their importation, first took effect in October 1998. Several European nations have imposed additional bans on genetically improved crops.

The WTO decision eliminates all such moratoria and bans.

“The WTO has ruled in favor of science-based policymaking over the unjustified, anti-biotech policies adopted in the EU,” U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab said in a news release issued September 29 by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

“After eight years of legal wrangling and stalling by Europe, we are a step closer to clearing barriers faced by U.S. agricultural producers and expanding global use of promising advances in food production,” Schwab said.

Benefits of Biotechnology “Numerous organizations, researchers, and scientists have determined that biotech foods pose no threat to humans or the environment,” the trade representative’s news release noted. “These include the French Academy of Sciences, the 3,200 scientists who cosponsored a declaration on biotech foods, and numerous scientific studies–including a joint study conducted by seven national academies of science (the National Academies of Science of the United States, Brazil, China, India, and Mexico, plus the Royal Society of London and the Third World Academy of Sciences).”

The ruling will help farmers, the general public, and the environment, said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns. “Farmers who grow biotechnology crops in 21 countries around the world, including five in the EU, stand to benefit from today’s decision,” Johanns said. “Biotechnology crops not only are helping to meet the world’s food needs, they also are having a positive environmental impact on our soil and water resources.”

U.S. Joined Challenge

Argentina, Canada, and the U.S. jointly brought the challenge before the WTO in August 2003. Brazil and China, which also produce substantial amounts of genetically improved foods, did not participate in the WTO action.

Other nations growing genetically improved crops include Australia, Colombia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Honduras, India, Iran, Mexico, Paraguay, the Philippines, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Uruguay.

Larger Victory Bypassed

Henry Miller, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, applauded the decision but noted the challenge was fairly limited and could have addressed the broader EU biotech regulatory process. For example, Miller pointed out, labeling requirements are tremendously burdensome, discouraging production of even the few genetically modified foods that were approved before the moratorium took effect.

“The European regulations are far more discriminatory and debilitating than those in the United States, Canada, and Argentina,” Miller said. “For example, capitulating to green activists, the EU now requires those few biotech foods that are allowed on the market to be labeled in such a way that every single ingredient can be traced back to the farm on which it was grown.”

Because the U.S. failed to challenge the EU regulatory system head on, “it is a partial and largely hollow victory,” Miller concluded.

Precautionary Principle Voided

Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said he agreed with Miller’s assessment. Nevertheless, there was some good news in the decision, Conko noted.

“The WTO essentially said that no existing international regulatory standard indicates the need for a moratorium or blanket ban on biotech products,” Conko reported. “In reaching this conclusion, the WTO was aware that the EU had conducted risk assessments on 25 of the 28 products and found there to be zero or negligible risk compared with comparable non-biotech crops and food.

“The importance of the decision,” Conko added, “is that the WTO repeated, loudly and clearly, that countries cannot raise the ‘precautionary principle’ as a legitimate defense against charges of unlawful trade barriers. If a country conducts a risk assessment and finds no new risk, it can’t then ignore the risk assessment and ban products anyway.”

James Hoare ([email protected]) is an attorney practicing in Syracuse, New York.

For more information …

“U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns Announce Favorable Ruling in WTO Case on Agricultural Biotechnology,” USTR Press Release, September 29, 2006,

“EU crop biotechnology moratorium ruled illegal,” Agriculture Online, October 12, 2006,