In the late Spring of 2003, amidst the political fallout of “Old Europe’s” refusal to support the US invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration threw down a gauntlet that threatened to permanently aggravate transatlantic hostilities. As a political favor to its agribusiness allies in the Midwestern farm belt, the administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) seeking to overturn Europe’s de facto five-year moratorium on approvals of new genetically engineered crop varieties. The governments of Argentina and Canada also signed on to the complaint; together these three countries grow roughly 80 percent of the world’s genetically engineered crops.
Just last week, the substance of the WTO’s decision on this case was released to the parties involved, and almost immediately leaked to the press. As nearly everyone expected, the WTO’s anonymous three-judge panel ruled that some of Europe’s restrictions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) violate global trade rules, and that any attempt to regulate this technology requires strict compliance with the trade body’s exacting and often industry-biased scientific risk assessment procedures. Perhaps more than any previous WTO decision, the ruling confirmed many people’s fears about the role this secretive and unaccountable trade body would play in today’s world.
The response to the decision from both sides of the global GMO debate was immediate. Supporters of the technology were quick to declare victory, and denounce European concerns about genetic engineering as mere protectionism for European vs. American agricultural products. They predicted that the WTO would impose penalties of over a billion dollars to compensate US companies for lost European exports, and claimed this decision ‘proved’ that opposition to GMOs has no scientific basis. Critics of the biotech industry denounced the WTO’s violation of people’s right to make appropriate choices about their food and how it is grown, and pointed out that Europeans would not begin consuming genetically engineered corn or soybeans as a result of this decision. Its main impact would be on other countries still struggling to address the implications of this technology. “[T]he WTO suit is clearly an effort to chill other nations from pursuing any regulations on GE foods,” explained an alliance of 15 US-based NGOs in a statement that immediately preceded the ruling. African and Asian governments are by far the most conspicuous targets.
On one hand, the WTO panel ruled against the European Union (EU) in each of the three substantive areas addressed by the US complaint. First, the unnamed trade judges declared that Europe had indeed imposed a sweeping moratorium on new genetically engineered crop varieties, in violation of the international trade agreement on “Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.” Second, they ruled that approvals of 24 specific GMO crop varieties had been illegally delayed. Third, the judges declared that additional prohibitions imposed by six countries-Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, and Luxemburg-are inconsistent with these countries’ obligations as members of the global trade body.
But on the other hand, the WTO officials were careful to point out that they had dismissed most aspects of the US complaint. This is clear from the concluding 22 pages of the 1050 page decision, the only portion that has been publicly released. The decision, for example, explicitly does not address the safety of biotech products, their similarity (or not) to conventional crop varieties, countries’ right to require pre-market approval of GE varieties, nor even the European Union’s specific regulatory procedures. The WTO panel affirmed that member countries have the right to consider all possible hazards of GMOs in their risk assessments, even those that are perceived to be “highly unlikely to occur.”
The defending countries’ principal violation was a “failure to complete individual approval procedures without undue delay,” no more, no less. Other aspects of the US, Canada and Argentina’s complaints were largely rejected. The EU was found to have acted inconsistently with only one clause of the international sanitary measures agreement, having to do with the timeliness of GMO approvals. In six other areas, including the scientific validity of Europe’s regulations, the decision refutes US assertions that Europeans acted inconsistently with their WTO obligations. The claim that European regulations discriminated against US imports in a protectionist manner was explicitly rejected, and the panel upheld European regulators’ non-approval of three GMO varieties developed by Aventis Crop Science, now part of Bayer.
The six countries with additional prohibitions on GMOs were found to have violated WTO rules by enacting measures that trumped EU risk assessment protocols. Thus the WTO implicitly endorsed the principle of pre-emption: that no member state can impose regulations more stringent than those of the European Union as a whole. There is no claim that countries introduced invalid or insufficient scientific evidence; their only offense was to enact a political decision that the interests of their people are best served by keeping many genetically engineered foods out of the country. It is precisely these kinds of precautionary political decisions that international trade rules aim to prohibit, even though a precautionary approach has been endorsed by parties to the United Nations’ Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
European officials’ defense was that they never actually imposed a moratorium on GMOs, only that companies were not complying with the existing approval process, leading to unanticipated delays. This argument was apparently rejected by the trade officials. However, during the three years that this case has been pending, EU officials clarified and streamlined their approval processes for engineered crop varieties. One new genetically engineered sweet corn has already been approved, though no one realistically expects it to be grown or marketed in Europe. The Union has implemented detailed GMO labeling and traceability rules designed to conform to WTO requirements. These protections still go far beyond anything seen in the US, and the Bush administration has repeatedly threatened a new complaint to challenge them. But first, according to Friends of the Earth, the EU will have 30 days to file a response to the WTO ruling, and is entitled to seek a “reasonable period of time” to comply, followed by another six-month review.
What does this decision mean for people who mainly want to know what’s in their food? That still depends on where in the world you live. In Europe, genetically engineered ingredients have been virtually eliminated from processed foods, even products imported by US companies and sold under US brand names. Any ingredient that is more than 0.9 percent genetically engineered needs to be clearly labeled as such. European countries import engineered soybeans from the US and Brazil for animal feed, but there is growing pressure on meat processors and retailers to curtail this practice. Some 3500 cities, towns and regions in Europe have declared themselves GMO-Free Zones, and just last November, Swiss voters endorsed a measure that prohibits the growing of engineered crops for five years.
In the US, new varieties of genetically engineered corn, soy, canola and cotton continue to be marketed and approved for sale with only a cursory, and often voluntary, examination of company data by federal regulators. Most Hawaiian papayas are genetically engineered, as are just a few varieties of summer squash. Milk from cows injected with Monsanto’s recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone also continues to be sold in many regions of the country. Nearly 100 New England towns have voted in favor of a moratorium and labeling of GMOs, and four California counties have banned the raising of engineered crops or livestock. But attempts to more comprehensively regulate this technology have languished under the pressure of Monsanto’s potent political influence, especially at the federal level.
The rest of the world may be up for grabs now. People throughout Asia, Africa, and parts of Latin America have raised a determined opposition to GMOs, viewing the technology as a fundamental threat to food sovereignty and the survival of traditional agriculture. Numerous countries have labeling and testing requirements that reach far beyond what is acceptable to Monsanto or the Bush administration. One hundred thirty countries (excluding the US) have ratified the UN’s Biosafety Protocol, which requires prior informed consent before seeds or other living engineered organisms can be shipped into any country. It is in the so-called developing world that the pressure from the WTO’s decision may be most felt, particularly in Africa, where Zambia and other countries have steadfastly resisted the introduction of GMOs, especially in the form of US food aid. “We made a decision based on facts and those facts have not changed,” Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana told Reuters, “We do not want GM foods [and we] hope no one in Africa feels they have to change their views based on that ruling.”
Brian Tokar’s latest book is Gene Traders: Biotechnology, World Trade and the Globalization of Hunger (www.genetraders.org).