U.S., Canada file WTO challenge to EU ag biotech ban

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WASHINGTON – The United States, acting with Argentina, Canada and Egypt last week, challenged the European Union moratorium on approvals of agricultural biotech products for planting or import.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the USDA said the European Union moratorium violates a World Trade Organization agreement on protecting food safety because it was imposed five years ago without sufficient scientific evidence.

The WTO also requires that regulatory approvals proceed without “undue delay.”

A spokesman for the European Commission called the U.S. move “unfortunate” and “unnecessary” and insisted that the European Union had approved the moratorium in response to “legitimate consumer demands.”

Trade barrier. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said the EU’s resistance to abiding by its WTO obligations has “perpetuated a trade barrier unwarranted by the EC’s [European Commission] own scientific analysis.”

Joining the WTO challenge as third parties are Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay.

Also joining Zoellick and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman at the Washington announcement was Dr. C.S. Prakash, organizer of a pro-agricultural biotech declaration signed by 20 Nobel Laureates and more than 3,200 scientists.

Losing patience. “The EU’s moratorium violates WTO rules,” said Zoellick. “We’ve waited patiently for five years for the EU to follow the WTO rules and the recommendations of the European Commission [EC], so as to respect safety findings based on careful science.”

Veneman said the challenge is about playing by the rules.

“This case is about playing by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed to comply with its WTO obligations,” said Veneman.

Entitled to regulate. The WTO agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures recognizes that countries are entitled to regulate crops and food products to protect health and the environment.

The WTO sanitary and phytosanitary agreement requires, however, that members have “sufficient scientific evidence” for such measures and that they operate their approval procedures without “undue delay.”

Before 1999, the EU approved nine agriculture biotech products for planting or import. It then suspended consideration of all new applications for approval, and has offered no scientific evidence for this moratorium on new approvals.

Global ripples. The EU moratorium on agricultural biotech approvals has ramifications far beyond Europe, the administration claims.

The spread of beneficial biotechnology is slowing, and developing countries have already suffered negative consequences.

In the fall of 2002, some famine-stricken southern African countries balked at U.S. food aid because of health and environmental concerns as well as fears that the countries’ exports to Europe would be jeopardized by “contamination” of local crops.

Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique refused U.S. food aid, although Zimbabwe and Mozambique eventually accepted U.S. food aid after making costly and cumbersome arrangements to mill donated corn so that African farmers could not try to grow it.

Governments feared their exports to Europe would be jeopardized. Zambia continues to refuse U.S. corn.

Grown worldwide. More than 145 million acres of biotech crops were grown in the world in 2002. Worldwide, about 45 percent of soy, 11 percent of corn, 20 percent of cotton and 11 percent of rapeseed are biotech crops.

In the United States, 75 percent of soybeans, 34 percent of corn and 71 percent of cotton are biotech crops.

House divided. While the National Corn Growers Association and the American Soybean Association have come out in support of the administration’s actions, the American Corn Growers Foundation surveyed 511 growers in the top corn states and more than 75 percent disagreed with the WTO challenge.

Respondents were evenly split – with 44 percent in each corner – whether or not the United States would continue to lose corn and soybean exports if U.S.. farmers continued to grow biotech varieties.

What’s next? The first step in a WTO dispute, which the United States and other countries are taking, is to request and conduct consultations in the next 60 days.

If at the end of the 60 days, no resolution has been achieved, then the United States and the cooperating countries may seek the formation of a dispute-settlement panel to hear arguments.

Dispute-settlement procedures, including appeal, typically take a total of 18 months.

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