America challenges ban on GM foods

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Europe and America were on course for another bitter dispute yesterday when Washington challenged an unofficial EU moratorium on new genetically modified products.

The US government said it intended to take the EU to the World Trade Organisation, arguing that its refusal to grant any licences for new GMOs since October 1998 was an obstacle to free trade.

The American decision provoked an angry reaction from the European Commission, which described the move as "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful". Pascal Lamy, the EU trade commissioner, added: "The EU's regulatory system for GMOs' authorisation is in line with WTO rules: it is clear, transparent and non-discriminatory. There is therefore no issue that the WTO needs to examine."

Although there is no formal EU embargo on new licences being granted, a substantial minority of countries, led by France, have said that they will block all applications until new legislation on safety and labelling is in place. The group argues that it is simply reflecting concerns among public opinion in Europe.

But pressure for action has been mounting from the farming lobbies within America, alarmed that Europe's anxieties on GM food will spread around the globe.

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