U.S.-Led Coalition Challenges Biotech Ban

Published July 1, 2003

The World Trade Organization (WTO) will decide whether a European Union ban on genetically enhanced food violates free trade principles, as is alleged in a complaint filed May 13 by the United States and a dozen other nations.

The ban has been in effect since 1998, when the EU asserted it needed time to develop a regulatory system for the tracking and labeling of foods made from genetically improved crops. Five years later, the EU still enforces a moratorium on genetically enhanced crops, saying it is still in the process of devising a regulatory system.

Bush Cites Famine Concerns

Speaking at a May 21 commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, President George W. Bush cited the EU moratorium for exacerbating famine in Africa. “By widening the use of new high-yield bio-crops and unleashing the power of markets, we can dramatically increase agricultural productivity and feed more people across the continent,” said Bush. “Yet our partners in Europe are impeding this effort. They have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears.

“This has caused many African nations to avoid investing in biotechnologies, for fear their products will be shut out of European markets,” Bush added. “European governments should join–not hinder–the great cause of ending hunger in Africa.”

Said U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, “This dangerous effect of the EU’s moratorium became evident last fall, when some famine-stricken African countries refused U.S. food aid because of fabricated fears–stoked by irresponsible rhetoric–about food safety.

“As a major importer of food, Europe’s decisions ripple far beyond its borders. Uganda refused to plant a disease-resistant type of banana because of fears it would jeopardize exports to Europe,” Zoellick said. “Namibia will not buy South Africa’s biotech corn for cattle feed to avoid hurting its beef exports to Europe. India, China, and other countries in South America and Africa have expressed the same trepidation.”

Congress Supports End to Moratorium

The moratorium is particularly harmful to U.S. farmers, who lose between $300 million and $500 million of exports to the EU each year according to most estimates. Accordingly, the filing of the WTO claim found broad support on Capitol Hill.

“It would be a shame if developing countries in Africa continue to deny food aid containing biotechnology because of the anti-biotechnology attitudes in Europe,” said Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Virgina), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.

“The politicizing of agricultural biotechnology should end so that we can return to providing food aid to the hungry as soon as possible,” Goodlatte said.

Republican Missouri Senator Jim Talent complained “the EU’s position is simply a veiled attempt to protect its market from competition. Their policy decisions are based on unsound science and they are costing lives in countries coping with famine.”

International Implications

Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Columbia, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Uruguay joined the U.S. in challenging the EU ban.

Two key questions will be addressed by the WTO. First, is a five-year moratorium on imports under the guise of regulatory rule-making the equivalent of a trade barrier? Second, is a ban on genetically enhanced food products supported by scientific evidence of health or environmental dangers?

“We have been working hard in Europe to complete our regulatory system in line with the latest scientific and international developments. The finalization period is imminent,” promised David Bryne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.

Margot Wallstrom, EU Commissioner for the Environment, added the EU has no ban on genetically enhanced foods, but simply needs more time to develop and implement its desired regulatory standards.

“This U.S. move is unhelpful and can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult,” said Wallstrom. “But in the meantime, the Commission strongly believes that we in Europe should move ahead with completing our legislation on traceability and labelling on food and feed, currently before the European Parliament. We should not be deflected or distracted from pursuing the right policy for the EU.”

“It’s sad that leaders of southern African countries with starving populations have rejected U.S. food aid of biotech produce due to fears of losing export markets in Europe,” countered Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

“As long as the European Union’s moratorium stands, other countries might put their own populations at risk in an effort to comply with the European Union’s misguided policies,” he said.

“The European Union’s refusal to license new biotech crops is a clear and blatant violation of its obligations under trade treaties it has signed and ratified,” added Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].