US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has launched a scathing attack on the EU for what he called its “Luddite” and “immoral” moratorium on genetically modified crops.

Zoellick said the moratorium was “a complete violation of the WTO” rules and that there was now “pretty wide agreement” within the administration to file a complaint with the WTO against the EU, a move that could result in one of the biggest trade disputes between the US and Europe for years, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Other administration officials did not support Zoellick’s statement, arguing that the issue was still under discussion within various agencies, including the White House. Some US officials are concerned that a trade dispute between the US and the EU will only strengthen anti-US sentiment ahead of possible military action against Iraq.

The EU executive is in favour of lifting the moratorium but six member states, namely Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg, continue to refuse to do so unless stricter rules on labelling and traceability are put in place. Many consumers in the EU remain cautious about GM foods, and opposition to biotechnology remains strong.

The EU recently came under fire from the US over its biotech policy after Zambia refused to accept the US’s GM food aid. The famished African country refused to accept aid that may have included genetically modified crops due to fears the crops may contaminate its non-GM crops and thereby jeopardise exports to areas such as the EU.

Zoellick also said that the US administration had received information that several European countries are now making economic aid to developing countries contingent on whether they prohibit biotech crops.

The EU rejected the charge. “It’s a bit far fetched to link the GM debate with hunger in Africa,” Arancha Gonzalez, an EU spokeswoman was quoted as saying by Dow Jones News, adding that the US gave African countries an unfair choice between importing GM seeds that could contaminate their domestic crops or face starvation.