GM food must be allowed into Europe, WTO rules

Europe faces new pressure to open its markets to genetically-modified food from the US after the World Trade Organisation ruled that the EU broke international rules with its moratorium on new licences.

A lengthy and complex preliminary ruling from the WTO said that a de facto Europe-wide ban, which prevented new corn, cotton and soybean products from entering the European market, was not based on scientific concerns.

American sources also said that the WTO had found that six individual states - France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece - broke the rules by applying their own bans on marketing and importing GMOs.

The row over GMOs has exacerbated transatlantic tensions over trade. In most European countries there is acute suspicion of GM technology which is widely accepted by North Americans. Corn and soybeans that have been genetically modified to resist insects or disease have been widely grown in the US for years.

The case refers to the period between 1998 and 2004 when a group of EU member states blocked all new approvals until a new system was in place which would boost traceability and labelling of GM products.

Though that ban has now been lifted, US producers are still frustrated at the pace of the approval procedures in Europe. Moreover they also believe that, by taking the EU to the WTO, they will deter non-European countries from blocking GM products.

Last night the European Commission refused to comment on the findings which have yet to be made public formally. However the EU is likely to dispute the WTO's preliminary ruling, arguing that the moratorium is now over, and pointing to the fact that 30 GMOs or derived food and feed products have been approved for marketing in the EU. If the preliminary findings are backed up in the WTO's final report, due in several months, the EU is entitled to appeal.

The US, Canada and Argentina brought the WTO complaint against the EU, in May 2003, arguing that the moratorium was about protectionism, not science. The three countries say there is no scientific evidence for the EU action, which was an unfair barrier to producers of biotech foods wanting to do business in Europe.

The EU said it needed the block to allow it to gather biotech data and find out how best to update GMO rules. It argues that, while GMOs are not inherently unsafe, a case-by-case assessment of environmental, human and animal health needs to be made.

Two years ago the moratorium was lifted and a modified strain of sweetcorn, grown mainly in the US, was allowed on to the market. But Washington continued with the case because it wanted to be sure approvals for GMO sales were being decided on scientific rather than political grounds.

Last night's ruling was greeted with relief by US farmers.

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