US officials have announced that the United States, together with Argentina, Canada, and Egypt, will file a World Trade Organisation (WTO) case against the European Union over its five-year moratorium on approving agricultural biotech products, in a move which EU officials have called misguided and unnecessary.


US Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman said that nine other countries – Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay – are supporting the case.


“The EU’s moratorium violates WTO rules. People around the world have been eating biotech food for years. Biotech food helps nourish the world’s hungry population, offers tremendous opportunities for better health and nutrition and protects the environment by reducing soil erosion and pesticide use,” said Zoellick.


“We’ve waited patiently for five years for the EU to follow the WTO rules and the recommendations of the European Commission, so as to respect safety findings based on careful science. The EU’s persistent resistance to abiding by its WTO obligations has perpetuated a trade barrier unwarranted by the EC’s own scientific analysis, which impedes the global use of a technology that could be of great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world,” he added.


In response, the European Commission said it regretted the US decision to file a WTO case as “misguided, unnecessary, legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful”.


EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy questioned US motives for bringing the case to the WTO: “The EU’s regulatory system for GMO‘s authorisation is in line with WTO rules: it is clear, transparent and non-discriminatory. There is therefore no issue that the WTO needs to examine. The US claim that there is a so-called “moratorium” but the fact is that the EU has authorised GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications.”


David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer protection said: “We have been working hard in Europe to complete our regulatory system in line with the latest scientific and international developments. The finalisation process is imminent. This is essential to restore consumer confidence in GMO’s in Europe.”


Byrne went on to say that it is the lack of consumer demand for GM-products that accounts for the low sales of GMOs in the EU market. “Unless consumers see that the authorisation process is up to date and takes into account all legitimate concerns, consumers will continue to remain sceptical of GM products.”


The so-called “moratorium” in the EU on approval of new GM varieties relates to the fact that since October 1998, no new GMOs have been authorised for release into the environment because the EU’s regulatory regime was deemed insufficient to address safety issues.


The EU is currently finalising the adoption of rules on labelling and traceability, which anti-GM campaigners and consumer groups have called for to answer consumers’ demands for more and better information on GMOs, and the need to facilitate freedom of choice.


In response to US allegations that the EU is responsible for a number of developing countries, including several famine-stricken African countries, rejecting US food aid due to concerns about GM content, the European Commission said it finds it unacceptable that such “legitimate concerns are used by the US against the EU policy on GMOs”. The Commission said it believes that it is the legitimate right of developing countries’ governments to fix their own level of protection and to take the decision they deem appropriate to prevent unintentional dissemination of GM seeds.


“Food aid to starving populations should be about meeting the urgent humanitarian needs of those who are in need. It should not be about trying to advance the case for GM food abroad, or planting GM crops for export, or indeed finding outlets for domestic surplus, which is a regrettable of the US food aid policy,” the Commission continued.


The first step in a WTO dispute, which the United States and other countries are taking this week, is to request and conduct consultations in the next 60 days. WTO procedures are designed to encourage parties to resolve their differences. If at the end of the 60 days, no resolution has been achieved, then the US may seek the formation of a dispute settlement panel to hear arguments. Dispute settlement procedures, including appeal, typically take a total of 18 months.