The World Trade Organisation (WTO) is expected to deliver its verdict on US accusations that the European Union has illegally restricted imports of genetically modified crops. A pro-US decision is widely rumoured.

The US, supported by Canada and Argentina, has argued that in 1998 European officials suspended approval of new biotech varieties. The US claims that this was in violation of a global treaty on food standards, which states that governments must act without ”undue delay” and to base decisions on scientific risk assessments, not political expediency. The EU contends that GM crops posed serious health risks that took time to evaluate.

If the WTO does find in favour of the biotech foods, it remains unclear what impact this will have. The EU will likely argue that the ruling is redundant as it resumed approving biotech crops in 2004. Moreover, the direct economic impact of the halt in approvals has been comparatively small. US farm interests say that about US$300m a year in corn exports to Europe has dried up since 1998.

Commentators have suggested that one of the major benefits that a pro-GM decision will have is to prevent other countries following Europe’s lead in resisting the spread of GM technology.

In 2003, the EU passed legislation requiring foods with GM ingredients to be labelled. Lobbyists for the biotech industry have urged the US government to bring this legislation before the WTO. Stephanie Childs, spokesperson for the Grocery Manufactuers Association (GMA) told just-food that GMA and the companies the association represents have been long-time supporters of the use of biotechnology.

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“The GMA position is that the labelling legislation is an illegal barrier to trade. We are on record as supporting any future move by the US Government to challenge the EU’s labelling and traceability regulations,” Childs said.
Opposition to GM technology remains strong in Europe, and many food producers fear that the labeling of GM ingredients will repel consumers.

Adrian Bebb, GM Food campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, told just-food that he believes that a pro-GM decision would not quell European reservations. “Opposition to genetically modified foods is likely to increase if the WTO decides that European safeguards should be sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations. The number of bans by countries in Europe against GM foods is increasing, and the number of regions declaring themselves GM Free has soared.”