22/11/06 (Soyatech.com) GENEVA - The WTO on Tuesday officially adopted a ruling that European countries broke international trade rules by stopping imports of genetically modified foods.
Argentina, Canada and the United States - which brought the dispute to the World Trade Organization - said the WTO's decision proves there was no scientific evidence to justify the European Union's effective ban on biotech foods and that it was an unfair barrier to producers who wanted to export to the continent.
The three urged the 25-nation EU to immediately bring its laws on so-called GMOs into compliance. In a somewhat surprising development, the EU decided not to postpone the decision through an appeal.
"The findings of the panel uphold the principle of science-based policymaking over unjustified, anti-biotech policies," U.S. Ambassador Peter Allgeier told the WTO's dispute settlement body.
The EU's policies, Allgeier said, "have perpetuated an unjustified trade barrier that has impeded both U.S. exports and the global use of a technology that promises great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world."
Brussels, however, immediately signaled its intention to ignore the WTO's finding that its moratorium on the products for six years from 1998 violated international rules. It says it ended the moratorium in 2004 - when it allowed onto the market a modified strain of sweet corn, grown mainly in the United States - and argues that it has come into compliance with the subsequent approval of further biotech crops.
"As a result, most of the findings of the panel have become theoretical," EU trade negotiator Raimund Raith said. "There's no basis for claiming that the (EU) is maintaining the moratorium."
Genetically modified foods are highly sensitive on both sides of the Atlantic. European governments such as Germany and France, as well as a number of environmental groups, contend that many such crops are unsafe for humans and the environment.
The WTO's 1,148-page verdict - the longest ever handed down by the Geneva-based body which sets the rules for global commerce - was confidentially handed out in May after a three-year investigation.
It did not rule on whether current EU legislation was illegal, and sidestepped the issue of whether biotech foods were safe. But it concluded that the EU had breached its commitments with respect to 21 products, including types of oilseed rape, maize and cotton. It also said individual bans in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg were illegal.
Raith asked the complainants for "a reasonable period of time" to work with its member states on their national legislation. He said Brussels had decided not to appeal the decision "despite many reservations" regarding the arguments and conclusions of the report because its biotech regime is now functioning properly.
But Washington has said it will continue with its WTO case until it is convinced that all applications for approval are being decided on scientific rather than political grounds. U.S. farm groups say the restrictions cost them hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) annually in export sales of genetically modified crops to the EU.
Canada on Tuesday said it hoped the EU would "remove its WTO-inconsistent measures and that the way will have been paved to improve trade in agricultural products of biotechnology." Argentina also urged the EU to change its legislation according to the WTO decision.
The WTO can only authorize penalties for illegal trade restrictions still in force. But if the U.S. and the others prove that the EU has failed to sufficiently act on the individual country bans or the specific product barriers ruled illegal, the WTO may authorize retaliatory sanctions against Brussels.
Environment groups, normally scornful of the U.S. and others for pursuing their case in the biotech dispute, blasted Brussels for bypassing the chance to appeal Tuesday's decision.
"The EU has botched its response to the U.S. assault on biosafety from start to finish," said Daniel Mittler, trade policy adviser at Greenpeace International. "They said to the WTO that GE (genetic engineering) is risky and told member states they were safe, and now they have decided not to stand up."