The World Trade Organisation has delivered its highly anticipated report on European Union's sluggish approval of genetically modified (GM) crops.

In 2003, the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR), with the support of Canada and Argentina, filed a WTO case arguing that the EU's 1998 moratorium of GM crop approvals was an illegal barrier to trade.

The WTO has sided with the US, condemning the EU's de facto ban of GM seeds and criticising national bans on marketing and releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment.

In a statement released yesterday (7 February) the EU defended its position on GMO regulations. Although GMOs are not inherently unsafe, the EU said, safety needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis and this takes time. "The EU legislation follows strictly the internationally recommended approach and reflects the requirements of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to which the EU is a signatory," the statement said.

The WTO ruling will not open EU markets since the EU began approving biotech crops in 2004, although some national governments are still resisting their introduction. Nonetheless, it is thought that the ruling sets a precedent that may discourage other nations from legislating against biotechnology.

"The World Trade Organisation (WTO) has preliminarily found the European Union has a de facto moratorium on agricultural biotechnology products that is inconsistent with WTO rules. The facts on agricultural biotechnology are clear and compelling. It is a safe and beneficial technology that is improving food security and helping to reduce poverty worldwide," said US trade representative Rob Portman.

"We believe agricultural biotechnology products should be provided a timely, transparent and scientific review by the European Union, and that is why Canada, Argentina and the United States brought the case in the first place."

Friends of the Earth Europe campaigner Adrian Bebb told just-food that he antisipated the WTO decision would lead to staunch resistance from European consumers. "The WTO has bluntly ruled that European safeguards should be sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations. This will backfire and lead to even greater opposition to genetically modified food and crops. Consumers worldwide will not be bullied into eating GM foods."