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Europe's biotech food ban challenged by U.S., others

It will be interesting to see how the World Trade Organization handles the complaint filed by the Bush administration against the European Union's ban on imports of U.S. genetically altered foods and commodities.

Even though some consider the WTO something of a paper tiger more given to debate than action, the U.S. move is generally seen as a positive step. As a direct result of the moratorium, the United States has lost millions of dollars in export sales to the European Union — estimated at $300 million year, the bulk of that involving GMO corn.

It also has kept farmers in many developing countries from growing genetically modified crops because they fear they will lose sales to the European Union. The ultimate in irony occurred last fall when the governments of the African nations Zambia and Zimbabwe, where hundreds of thousands are starving, turned down U.S. food aid because some of it was GMO grain, and they feared acceptance would jeopardize their sales to the European Union.

“Many biotech plant varieties have great potential to help alleviate poverty and hunger in the world's poorest nations,” said Tuskegee University Plant Genetics Professor C.S. Prakash, a native of India, who spoke at a Washington gathering of international scientists who oppose the E.U. ban. They included agricultural scientist and Novel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. “Poor country governments will not introduce these varieties as long as it means almost automatically forfeiting sales to Europe, one of the most important global markets,” Prakash said.

Gregory Conko, director of food safety policy for the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, said, “Even European scientific bodies acknowledge that there is no health or environmental risk from biotech crops, making the moratorium a prima facie violation of the European Union's legal obligations.

“Its refusal to license new biotech crops is a clear and blatant violation of its obligations under trade treaties it has signed and ratified. More importantly, it poses a genuine threat to the health and well-being of people throughout the developing world.”

The United States was joined in the WTO complaint by the governments of Canada, Argentina, and Egypt. Other countries indicating support, but not formally participating, included Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Uruguay. The trade dispute is now in its fifth year, and Lord only knows how much longer it will drag on under the WTO process.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoelick, in announcing the WTO complaint, said the goal is to “get compliance with the rules — not sanctions.”

He said U.S. “patience has run out” and that the “very negative effect” of the E.U. moratorium has an impact not just on Europeans, “but people all around the world. The human cost of rejecting this technology is enormous.”

Despite the European Union's intransigence, acres of GMO crops continue to increase. USDA's Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman says one-third of all this country's crops acreage is producing genetically modified crops, including 75 percent soybeans, 71 percent cotton, and 34 percent corn.

“I'm glad (the complaint) is filed, and I hope we win it,” said Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.

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