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U.S. Lodges WTO Complaint against Europe over GM Food

The United States has formally asked the World Trade Organization to declare the EU’s refusal to import most genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as illegal.

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Genetically modified and coming soon to a supermarket near you?

Backed by Canada and Argentina, the United States on Monday pushed ahead with filing a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO), requesting it to set up an arbitration panel to investigate the United States' ongoing trade row with the European Union.

The move marks the latest round in the lengthy transatlantic dispute sparked by the EU’s ban on the import of GM foods and grains and a mandatory labeling program introduced last month on GM food and animal feed. It also raises the prospect of a fresh trade war ahead of crucial world trade talks in Mexico.

Though WTO rules allow the EU, as the defendant, temporarily to block the move, the panel will automatically be formed when Washington repeats its request at the next WTO meeting on August 29. EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy defended the EU’s stance. "We regret this move to an unnecessary litigation," he said in a statement. "The EU’s regulatory system for GMOs is clear, transparent, reasonable and non-discriminatory." Lamy added he was confident the WTO would overturn the U.S. complaint.

EU Environment Minister Margot Wallstrom warned the U.S. move could backfire. "There should be no doubt that it is not our intention to create trade barriers. But my concern is that this request will muddy the waters of the debate in Europe. We have to create confidence among citizens for GMOs and then allow them to choose."

U.S. hit by EU ban on GM imports

The U.S., the world leader in biotech crops, say its GM exports to the EU have been unfairly hit by a moratorium imposed by the bloc on farming and the import of GM food and grain in 1998, with U.S. corn farmers complaining they lose about €300 million a year in sales to the EU.

At the heart of the debate lie the EU’s safety concerns over GM technology, which prompted the moratorium in the first place. Officials and environmentalists in the 15-member bloc have repeatedly voiced concerns about the health risks and the risk to the environment posed by GM crops. Critics in the EU have also stressed that not enough independent studies have been conducted to prove the gene-altering technology is safe.

Washington however argues there is no scientific evidence pointing to human health or environmental problems related to biotech products and has urged the Europeans to lift the ban. In June, the war of words intensified when U.S. President George Bush accused the European Union of being indirectly responsible for Africa’s hunger plight because Europe refused to accept GM crops, which often grow faster and are more disease-resistant than normal crops.

EU labeling program angers U.S.

Last month, in what was seen as a first step towards lifting the moratorium and easing trade relations with the United States, EU farm ministers approved new labeling regulations for biotech food that would eventually open up the European market to GM food. The regulation, expected to come into force next spring, would apply to foodstuffs at every stage of production and would include all products that contain more than 0.9 percent of GMOs. Producers would have six months to label their products accordingly.

The measure has been touted by the EU as restoring consumer confidence about the safety of GM products and on Monday it also cited a survey conducted by U.S. television station ABC in July which said 92 percent of the American public was in favor of biotech crop labeling. It has however failed to win over the U.S. government, which complains its products would also have to be mandatorily tagged. American farming organizations say being forced to use "GMO warning labels" on their products amounts to unfair trade barriers and involves high costs.

The latest spat over transatlantic biotech trade coincides with another potential trade dispute brewing between the Europe and the United States, this time over the EU’s push for global brand protection of famous food such as Gorgonzola and drinks like Cognac. Though EU member states failed on Monday to come up with a final list of its most well-known culinary treats, the United States has been upset with what it sees as Europe’s insistence on using geographical labels as a means to restrict market access.