WTO ruling on genetically modified organisms earns widespread condemnation

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Environmentalists, consumer organisations and progressive politicians have condemned last week's ruling in favour of the US and others at the World Trade Organisation. The ruling upheld complaints from countries affected by the EU's partial moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and its relatively strict labelling regulations. Also indicted were member states Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg, each of which was said to have broken international trade rules by imposing national bans on marketing and growing specific GMOs.

Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) were among environmentalist groups who attacked the decision, which ignores the fact that the EU's laws were approved by fifteen member states and the European Parliament after three years of negotiation and debate. More importantly still, surveys show that consumers throughout the now 25-strong bloc simply do not want GMOs in their food or their fields. Two recent opinion polls demonstrate this, one in France, which showed that 78% of French people want a temporary ban on GM crops, and one conducted by the pro-GMO European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which found that 62% of Europeans are worried about GM products in food, underline this. Seehttp://www.efsa.eu.int "> here and here Yet the WTO believes that national safety bans on GM products, as well as the EU's cautious approach, are nothing more than barriers to trade, as claimed by the United States, Canada and Argentina.

Alexandra Wandel, FoEE's Trade Co-ordinator in Brussels, said: "Europe should fight this decision and lead the calls for a new global trading system that protects people and the environment from the worst excesses of industry. The WTO undermines democracy and puts business interests before the welfare of the public. It should not be allowed to rule on what we eat or what our farmers grow."

Adrian Bebb, the group's GM Food Campaigner, added: "The WTO has bluntly ruled that European safeguards should be sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations. This will backfire and lead to even greater opposition to genetically modified food and crops. Consumers worldwide will not be bullied into eating GM foods."

Monica Frassoni, Co-President of the Greens/EFA political group in the European Parliament, commented that “The WTO ruling ignores completely the will of EU citizens and gives free trade precedence over the precautionary principle and the democratic right to regulate for the protection of either health or the environment” adding that her group's members "call upon the EU Commission to abandon its ambiguous policy on GMOs and side with its citizens. The Greens in the European Parliament will defend the right to establish GM-free zones across the EU – and work to protect local democracy, consumer health, biodiversity and the growing organic and non-GM farming sectors. If a secretive WTO ruling can force open our grocery shelves to GM imports from the US, then we must start pushing that these WTO Dispute Panels are being reformed and that conflicts between trade and environmental protection are solved outside the WTO.”

National parliamentarians also entered the fray, with Krista van Velzen of the Dutch Socialist Party, which has campaigned against GMOs in the Netherlands, describing the decisions as “idiotic”and arguing that “Countries in Europe must be able to decide for themselves whether they want to allow products whose effects on public health and the environment are unclear.”

Ms Van Velzen sees the WTO's decision typical of the direction in which the organisation is going. “Everything has to come into line with the free market fundamentalism to which the organisation adheres. Profit comes before all other considerations, with no thought for the potential damage to health or the environment or for the position of developing countries.”

Critics of the WTO decision point out that there is already a broad international agreement on how to deal with biotech crops through the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Adopted in 2000, the Cartagena Protocol, as it is known, gives each country a considerable degree of power to decide its own position in relation to genetically modified crops, for example by following the precautionary principle, protecting organic and conventional farmers and requiring labelling.

Official reaction was scarcely less hostile than that from critics, with Austrian Government sources making it clear that, for the time being at least, they will continue to impose whatever restrictions they wish.

"The protection of people and the environment have absolute priority, and the most recent scientific research vindicates our cautious approach in this matter," the Austrian Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat said, adding that they would "exhaust all possibilities to keep Austria's agriculture GM-free and ensure consumers' safety."

In Greece, where consumer hostility is particularly strong, a spokesperson for the agriculture ministry stated categorically that "Greece is against genetically modified foods. All prefectures (regional authorities) have declared their area GMO-free. We need to discuss with Brussels and scientists safeguards before we lift the ban," a Greek agriculture
ministry source told Reuters.

In France, which has an enormous and highly active anti-GM movement, the ruling was attacked by environmentalists, farmers' organisations and consumer groups. In Italy, Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno accused the WTO of taking an "unbalanced stance", adding that "We would not want this verdict to represent an attempt to undermine the legislative sovereignty of the European Union."