The bitter dispute between the U.S., Canada, and Argentina, on one hand, and the European Union (EU), on the other, over the latter’s restrictive policies towards genetically modified foods reaches what is likely to be an acrimonious peak this week when the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules if the EU has violated trade rules by blocking foods produced using modern biotechnology techniques. Acrimonious because the EU is preemptively threatening to dishonor the verdict if it’s in favor of the U.S., Canada and Argentina. The EU is keen on blocking genetically modified foods without scientific justification.
The dispute dates back to the spring of 1998 when five EU member states -Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg – issued a declaration to block GMOs approvals unless the European Commission (EC) proposed legislation for traceability and labeling of GMOs. A year later in June 1999, EU environment ministers imposed a six-year de facto moratorium on all GMOs. The official moratorium has since lapsed but EU’s recalcitrance towards GMOs and obstruction remains.
EU’s ban on GMOs has exasperated the U.S., Canada and Argentina – leading growers of crops with GMO enhancements – to initiate a WTO dispute settlement process against the EU in May 2003, arguing that the moratorium harmed farmers and their export markets, particularly for corn and soybeans, and which are critical sources of revenue for farmers.
Now, the WTO’s verdict is due today(February 7, 2006). They have already reported it will be the longest report document of its kind. This suggests that EU political pandering may have seeped into the WTO process complicating what should be a simple trade dispute resolution. This is unfortunate for more than just the two parties involved.
The stakes are too high, not only to the parties in dispute, but to the entire world, and especially developing world. The dispute is not just another transatlantic trade skirmish. At stake are consumers’ rights to have real choices with regard to their food, and farmers’ freedoms to use approved tools and technologies to safely produce those food choices.
The EU has never justified its restrictive policies towards GMOs, which makes everybody question the motive behind GMOs ban. When it slapped a moratorium on GMOs, the EU cited undefined safety concerns as the reason for the drastic action. Their own scientists and regulators have repeatedly addressed and dismissed the safety issues for these GMO crops. Were similar undefined, precautionary principle standards applied to other growing practices – such as organic – Europe would have to similarly ban all foodstuffs.
In the absence of verifiable scientific justification to block GMOs from its territories, the EU is guilty of violating the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) and the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS), to which it is a signatory. The SPS, particularly, recognizes that countries are entitled to regulate crops and food products to protect health and environment. The agreement requires, however, “sufficient scientific evidence” to support trade-restrictive regulations on crops and food products to protect the environment.
The EU’s argument in the WTO dispute is greatly eroded by the fact that various scientific bodies have, repeatedly, vindicated GMOs. For example, the United Kingdom-based Institute for Food Science and Technology (IFT) – an independent body for food scientists and technologists – has declared that “genetic modification has the potential to offer very significant improvements in the quantity, quality and acceptability of the world’s food supply.”
In 2004, the U.S. National Research Council (NRC), a division of the National Academy of Sciences (NAC), issued a report in which it found that genetic engineering is “not an inherently hazardous process,” calling fears of the anti-biotech crowd “scientifically unjustified.”
In June 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that acknowledged the potential of genetically modified foods to enhance human health and development. The report, Modern Food Biotechnology, Human Health and Development, noted that pre-market assessments done so far have not found any negative health effects from consuming GM foods. Surely, no respectable scientific body would endorse a flawed innovation.
These findings may help to explain why agricultural biotech innovators and product developers continue to thrive. Cropnosis – a leading provider of market research and consultancy services in the crop protection and biotechnology sectors – estimates that the global value of biotech crops stands at $5.25 billion representing 15 percent of the $34.02 billion crop protection market in 2005 and 18 per cent of the $30 billion 2005 global commercial seed market.
The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), in a report released early this year, reveals that since the commercialization of the first GM crop a decade ago, 1 billion acre of land, in 21 countries, is under biotech crops. In 2005 alone, the global area of approved biotech crops was 222 million hectares, up from 200 million acres in 2004. This translates to annual growth rate of 11 percent.
The lucrative nature of GM crops – they yield high and require less pesticides and herbicides – is driving many developing countries to embrace them. However, many, especially in Africa, where agriculture constitutes 30 per cent of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), have been reluctant cultivate GMOs for fear of losing their European agricultural markets. This is why Europe’s accession to GMOs remains critical to Africa’s adoption of GMOs. The EU, by default, is preventing many poor countries to benefit from GMOs.
If Europe opens its doors to GMOs, many poor countries stand to gain from this technology and both the economic as well as life-saving benefits it has to offer. Many in poor countries, predominantly, live on agriculture. They must be given a chance to benefit from modern agricultural technologies such as biotechnology. Denying poor countries an opportunity to reap from crop biotechnology, which has proved so successful in other parts of the world, amounts to condemning billions of people who live in poor countries to a slow and painful death.