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WTO in Seattle: Britain loses GM food trade dispute

BRITAIN HAS lost the battle to stop biotechnology being considered under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, a move that opponents fear is a backdoor way to negotiate the entry of genetically modified foods into Europe.

British officials concede that the offer made by the European Commission on Tuesday at the WTO summit, is probably unstoppable, though they were trying to redraft it yesterday. Some EU ministers argued with trade commissioner Pascal Lamy on Wednesday that the commission had exceeded its brief, but the proposal stands.

"We don't feel that a working group of the WTO would be a helpful development," said a British source. The row is "a classic case of what offends so many people" about such negotiations, he added. However, EU sources said Britain's opposition was stronger in public than in private.

The commission insists that creating a working party to study the relationship between trade, development, health, consumer and environmental issues in the area of biotechnology is not a step towards GM imports - it is a fact-finding mission. Parallel UN negotiations on biosafety will also be considered, but there will be no deal until every other trade issue was resolved.

The EU made the offer in exchange for US concessions over the use of the precautionary principle, which could allow the EU to halt imports of food and other goods where there is concern about the potential health effects, eco-labelling and other environmental issues.

Michael Meacher, the British environment minister, was still seething yesterday. The issue is "the most contentious in the world trading system today," he said. There was a fear that "trade rules would be used to chip away on any existing rules to limit GMOs," he said.