A trade dispute is threatening to sour transatlantic relations, after the United States announced plans to sue the Europe Union unless it opens its market to millions of dollars of genetically modified goods.
The U.S. wants European cows - and consumers - to have the choice to eat genetically modified food.
The United States said on Tuesday it intends to file a complaint against the European Union with the World Trade Organization (WTO) over the EU’s five-year ban on importing new genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
"The EU's moratorium violates WTO rules," said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick at a press conference in Washington. He said that the EU's blocking tactics prevented the development of the technology which could help farmers and consumers throughout the world. The EU has authorized no new GMOs for release since October 1998.
"We've waited patiently for five years for the EU to follow the WTO rules," Zoellick said. "For five years, we've been told by European officials that a change in policy is just around the corner. But around every corner we find a new roadblock."
Strained transatlantic ties
The current dispute follows spats between the United States and the European Union over uranium and corporate tax breaks, as well as trade in steel, bananas and beef. It also comes just as America and Europe are attempting to smooth over relations after a nasty rift opened due to the war in Iraq.
But Zoellick was quick to dismiss speculation that the trade row could exacerbate the situtation. "The U.S. and the EU have a large and important economic relationship, and disputes such as this, while very important, make up only one part of that relationship." He said the U.S. would continue to work with the EU to manage their disputes "in an appropriate way".
Argentina, Canada, and Egypt have joined the U.S. in filing the WTO case, which is also being supported by Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay. The filing of the U.S.-led case triggers two months of talks between Washington and Brussels. If these fail, Zoellick said the U.S. would formally lodge its complaint, thereby starting a WTO investigation which could take about 18 months.
Zoellick said scientific evidence showed that the European concerns were unjustified and that GMOs should be allowed in just like any other product. "People around the world have been eating biotech food for years." According to the Reuters news agency, the trade dispute costs U.S. farmers about $300 million (€260 million) a year in mostly lost corn sales.
Biotech crops are designed to better withstand insects and herbicides, but some critics fear they could be dangerous to both human health and the environment.
Europe says case is "unwarranted"
The European Commission in a statement said it regretted the U.S. decision to file the WTO case. It called the move "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful".
EU Commissioner for Trade Pascal Lamy
EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy (photo) said the EU's regulatory system for GMO authorization was in line with WTO rules. "It is clear, transparent and non-discriminatory," he said.
Brussels explained that the EU's regulatory system had been inadequate to address the complex technology involved in GMOs. A new framework, however, entered into force last October. This has enabled biotech companies to submit revised applications for approval of agricultural biotech products, the Commission said. Two cotton seed oils for food use had already been placed on the market following authorization under the new system.
"Bullying" the world
Consumer and environmental groups criticized the U.S. threat to sue. They question the safety of biotech crops and say Europeans have the right to decide for themselves whether to accept them. Environment group Friends of the Earth International (FOEI) called the move the latest in a series of U.S. attempts to block other countries’ decisions to protect their environment, human health and social standards. It said Washington was using the WTO to “bully” people into accepting food they don’t want.
"If this attempt succeeds, the U.S. will force GM foods onto European markets regardless of the wishes of consumers," said Juan Lopez of FOEI in Brussels. "The European Commission and national governments must find the courage to stand up to this outrageous piece of bullying."
But Zoellick told reporters the United States was not trying "to force the food" on anyone. It just wanted to have "a fair chance" to sell biotech food in Europe.