The World Trade Organisation has ruled that the European Union had contravened international trade rules by banning imports of genetically modified food. But will it prove a Pyrrhic victory for biotech producers as European consumers and retailers remain sceptical? Catherine Sleep reports.

Last week the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ruled against the European Union (EU) over the embargo it had placed on imports of genetically modified foods from 1998 to 2004. The US, Canada and Argentina had argued when they brought the case before the WTO in 2003 that the moratorium was not scientifically justified and amounted to protectionism, but while the plaintiffs may have won in the courtroom the battle for European hearts, minds and cornfields will continue.

Given that the embargo was lifted nearly two years ago anyway, one might question the significance of the WTO ruling. After all, more than 30 genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or derived food and animal feed products have been approved for marketing in the EU, and ten of these were approved since the lifting of the import embargo in May 2004. Three were licensed as recently as last month.

European environmental campaigners simply find the WTO trade rules insufficiently stringent with respect to health and safety. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace slammed the WTO ruling as putting the interests of big business over the protection of consumers, farmers and wildlife and a direct attack on EU democracy. Friends of the Earth spokesman Adrian Bebb accused the WTO of “bluntly ruling that European safeguards should be sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations”. While such statements are inflammatory, they reveal the strength of feeling often underestimated by interested parties in North America.

The European Commission itself took a slightly more restrained approach, remarking snippily that its approvals process “may appear to be lengthy for some countries which adopt a more lenient approach towards food and environmental safety issues”.

James C. Webster, former assistant secretary for governmental and public affairs at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), argues that the decision was more about WTO trading rules than about GM foods per se. He told just-food: “US farm, agribusiness, biotechnology industry and government officials praised the ruling because it held, in essence, that determination whether food is safe is a matter of science and not politics. The US had maintained that the EU had politicised a process that it had agreed previously, in assenting to the WTO agreements, must be based on risk assessment and must be transparent.”

The ruling may have hinged on principles and politics rather than the rights and wrongs of biotechnology itself, but some biotech advocates are nonetheless hoping it will signal an acceleration of GM acceptance in a notoriously sceptical EU market. They believe it vindicates their efforts to gain international approval for GM products and point to a backlog of many years in the approval of shipments of various types of GM soybean, cotton and corn.

Responding to the ruling, Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) senior director of international trade Sarah Thorn said: “The WTO’s decision makes it clear that biotech regulations must be based on sound science and that the EU’s approach to biotech crop approvals is unwarranted.”

Yet celebrations would be premature, as consumer antipathy towards GM foods remains strong in Europe. A Eurobarometer poll in 2005 revealed that 54% of Europeans think GM food is dangerous. Field trials have repeatedly been destroyed, anti-GM advocacy groups are prominent, well-supported and vociferous, and most European food retailers have a policy of not stocking GM products, certainly not in their own-label ranges.

It will take more than a WTO ruling on a since-lapsed trade embargo to change this, and retailers evidently feel their interests are currently better served by reassuring customers of their opposition to GM than by educating them about its potential benefits. The Co-op supermarket group, for example, which markets itself as ‘the retailer with a conscience’ and is also Britain’s biggest farmer, has had a ban on GM ingredients across its businesses since 2003. Meanwhile in France, leading food retailer Carrefour was an early mover, removing foods containing GM ingredients in 1999. Switzerland undertook a national referendum in November 2005 in which all 26 cantons voted unanimously against GM crops and animals being farmed in the country.

Retailers and consumers are not alone in being, at best, lukewarm towards biotechnology. Many farmers and environmentalists are concerned that once definitively out of the bottle, the GM genie may prove impossible to contain. The growing ranks of organic farmers, in particular, are keen to keep GM crops as far away from their fields as possible, and will use all legal means available to them to achieve this.

In fact, even though the WTO ruling relates to a ban which was lifted two years ago, it may serve as a focus for renewed public suspicion and hostility towards GM, such is the antipathy within the EU. In spite of the general level of animosity, the issue had faded somewhat from the public conscience during the last couple of years but should the EU be pressurised to accelerate its adoption of GM crops and food, it will swiftly return to the front pages. Last week’s ruling may have brought home to EU member states that membership of the hugely influential WTO comes at a price, and this includes adherence to its less palatable and less voter-friendly rules, though that may not prevent EU members from seeking a relaxation of WTO rules on the grounds of national sovereignty.