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U.S. contests Europe's ban on some food

(Wednesday, May 14, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Elizabeth Becker, NY Times: WASHINGTON, May 13 The Bush administration filed suit today at the World Trade Organization to force Europe to lift its ban on genetically modified food, a move that was postponed earlier this year by the debate on Iraq.

The suit will further heighten trans-Atlantic trade tensions after several recent rulings against the United States in cases brought by Europe at the W.T.O. over United States steel tariffs and tax shelters for overseas corporations.

The administration was backed by the speaker of the House, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, and other senior Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have been promoting the lawsuit for months. American farmers have led the complaints, saying they have invested in the technology needed to raise genetically modified crops only to see one of the biggest markets Europe closed to their products.

Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, said the administration had run out of patience waiting for the European Union to lift what he called a five-year-old moratorium that blocked several hundred million dollars of American exports into Europe. Worse, he said, European attitudes were spreading unfounded fears in the developing world, where the need is greatest for the increased yield of genetically modified crops.

"In developing countries, these crops can spell the difference between life and death," he said. "The human cost of rejecting this new technology is enormous."

Mr. Hastert estimated that American farmers lost $300 million in corn exports each year because of the European policy toward genetically modified food and animal feed.

"There's no question in my mind that the European Union's protectionist, discriminatory trade policies are costing American agriculture and our nation's economy hundreds of millions of dollars each and every year," Mr. Hastert said.

But European officials said today that they were dumbfounded by the suit. They said there was no moratorium on genetically modified food.

"The U.S. claims that there is a so-called moratorium, but the fact is that the E.U. has authorized G.M. varieties in the past and is currently processing applications," said Pascal Lamy, the top European trade official. "So what is the real U.S. motive in bringing a case?"

In practice, the Europeans did have an informal moratorium on new varieties of genetically modified food from 1998 until last year, when the E.U. instituted a new regulatory system that has approved two applications, with others pending.

At the center of the debate over genetically modified crops, if not the suit filed today, is a growing disagreement between the United States and Europe over what steps are necessary to protect public health and the environment.

European consumers are far more wary of genetically modified food than are Americans, and many object to what they consider aggressive American promotion of those foods, influenced by agribusiness.

The European Union is demanding that genetically modified food be labeled as such. They also want to be able to trace the origins of the food's ingredients and are near completion of new legislation to require both.

The United States opposes such labels and tracing mechanisms, saying they are too costly and impractical.

Margot Wallstrom, the European environmental commissioner, said the European legislature would complete its measure to require labeling and methods for tracing food and animal feed that is genetically modified.

"This U.S. move is unhelpful," she said. "It can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult."

The United States agriculture secretary, Ann M. Veneman, said today that the case was aimed at protecting American farmers and ranchers.

"With this case," she said, "we are fighting for the interests of American agriculture. This case is about playing by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed to comply with its W.T.O. obligations."

The United States was joined by Argentina, Canada and Egypt. Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay expressed support as third parties without direct commercial interest.

Many of these countries are in negotiations with the United States for a free trade agreement.

Chile is waiting for the administration to sign off on its accord after a delay driven in part by disappointment that it refused to side with the United States on the war with Iraq at the United Nations.

Mr. Zoellick promised European officials last week that trade would bring the allies together after the arguments over Iraq, not further separate them.

But trade is becoming a divisive issue, especially since the end of the war.

European officials lashed back at the administration today, refusing to be blamed for blocking genetically modified food aid and reminding the United States that it had refused to join 100 other countries and sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. That agreement sets out rules for exporters and importers of genetically modified crops to provide the proper information about the food and feed.

Nonprofit groups opposed to the W.T.O.'s influence said the case showed how globalization undermined local and national governments.

"The people eating the food or living in the environment that could be affected must decide domestic policy, not some secretive W.T.O. tribunal of three trade experts," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

But several African farmers and scientists at a news conference here joined Mr. Zoellick and Ms. Veneman in praising the American action.

"We believe it is better to give a person food to eat today than wait 10 years to be sure it is safe," said Darin Makinde, dean of the school of agriculture at the University of Venda in South Africa.

"Two elephants are fighting the United States and Europe and it is Africa that is suffering," he said.

(Tuesday, May 13, 2003 -- CropChoice news) --

Richard Cowan, Reuters: WASHINGTON - The United States on Tuesday announced plans to sue the European Union unless it quickly opened its market to millions of dollars of genetically modified products, brushing aside fears of worsening trans-Atlantic ties strained by the Iraq war.

Canada, Argentina and Egypt joined the United States in asking the World Trade Organization to get involved in a 5-year-old trade dispute that U.S. farmers say costs them about $300 million a year in lost sales, mostly corn, to Europe.

Announcing the trade case, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the EU's refusal to approve new biotech food was "in complete violation of international trade rules."

Zoellick and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said nine other countries had voiced support for the WTO complaint -- Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay.

Gary Hufbauer, a trade economist for the Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the United States was likely to prevail at the WTO, putting it "in a strong position in terms of the Doha Round".

Those negotiations are aimed at reforming global trade rules, including agriculture. The EU and United States are far apart on the issue of farm subsidies and other agriculture trade barriers.

Biotech crops are engineered to repel predatory insects and better withstand the application of weed killers. Critics say they could endanger human health and cause unforeseen damage to the environment.

The filing of the U.S. case triggers two months of talks between Washington and the EU. If these fail, Zoellick said the United States would formally lodge its complaint, thereby starting a WTO investigation which could take about 18 months.

But Zoellick told reporters, "Our goal is to get compliance with the rules. Our goal is not sanctions" against the EU.

The United States is a world leader in planting biotech crops, growing 75 percent of its soybeans, 34 percent of its corn and 71 percent of its cotton from gene-altered seeds.

Veneman said one in three U.S. acres are now planted with genetically modified crops.

Consumer and environmental groups criticized the threat to sue, questioning the safety of biotech crops and saying Europeans had the right to decide for themselves whether to accept them.

"Now Europeans are seeing GMOs being forced down their throats by the powerful WTO dispute system," said Washington-based Public Citizen.

Friends of the Earth called it "the latest in a series of attempts by the Bush administration to block efforts by other countries to protect public health and the environment."

But Zoellick told reporters, "We're not trying to force the food on anyone, we just want to make sure we have a fair chance" to sell biotech food in Europe.

France, which led opposition to the Iraq war in Europe, is also leading the GMO-skeptics in the EU, where consumer sentiment against the products runs high.

Meanwhile...

EU defends biotech rules before possible US attack

BRUSSELS, May 13 (Reuters) - The European Commission on Tuesday defended EU rules on genetically modifed foods ahead of a possible challenge by the United States at the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

A Congressional source told Reuters on Monday that the administration of President George W. Bush intended to file a complaint at the WTO over the EU's moratorium on biotech goods, a move that would spark a major transatlantic trade row.

More than 70 percent of U.S. soybeans and a third of the U.S. corn crop come from biotech seeds. Plans are also under way by Monsanto Co. to introduce biotech wheat.

"Of course we believe that our system for authorising GMOs (genetically modified organisms) into the European market is clear, it is transparent, it is predictable and as such it complies with WTO rules," European Trade spokeswoman Arancha Gonzalez said.

"We have legislation in the pipeline that will create an even more enhanced system," she told a news conference, referring to new rules on tracing GMO goods and labelling products to help consumers choose between items on shop shelves.

The rules would open the way to the sale of GM products in Europe's shops but the U.S. farm industry complains that its access to the lucrative EU market would remain tough and expensive.

So far a group of EU countries including France have steadfastly refused to allow GM foods onto shop shelves, effectively blocking the launch of such products throughout the 15-nation bloc.

The U.S. administration has for months been mulling possible action over the EU's biotech rules and Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has said he favours the launch of an action at the WTO, which referees in trade disputes.

A dispute over biotech foods would cast a big shadow over EU-U.S. trade ties at a time when the two are already engaged in a number of trade rows, but are supposed to be working together to further the Doha round of global trade liberalisation talks.

A GMO action would hit two sore points in Europe. One would be linked to agriculture, which is heavily subsidised from the EU budget and is under continual attack as a barrier to getting a deal at the world trade talks.

The other would touch on food safety and consumer fears after a series of devastating problems in Europe such as mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth disease.