GM Free Cymru

WTO ruling - "No change to de facto European ban on GMOs"

Thursday, February 09, 2006 11:23 AM

The interim WTO ruling came out yesterday and was reported in the Guardian, Daily Mail, Independent and Farming Today. Reflecting the complexity of the issues, this dispute took almost three years to come to a conclusion since the trade complaint was lodged in May 2003; normally WTO disputes should be decided within 6 months.

It should be remembered that the US's main intention was to send a strong warning to other counties not to follow Europe's restrictive regulatory approach on GMOs (safety assessment and labelling). The 800 page report (the longest in the WTO's history) has not been made public, and none of the details are officially available. However, comments reported in the press suggest that there may possibly be two positive aspects of the ruling which NGOs and other countries should look out for in the final report and if possible exploit:

1. There is a suggestion that the WTO report accepts that GMOs are not the same or 'equivalent' to non-GM products. In effect, this means that the WTO accepts that they can be treated differently, such as be subject to a different regulatory regime. Also, the report apparently does not challenge the EU approval and labelling regulations (though that was probably not part of the scope of the complaint).

2. As regards the European national bans on 27 GM crop varieties, the WTO ruling has come out in favour of the US position on only 23 crops and made mixed rulings on 4 crops. This could mean that there is now some potential for an internationally acceptable legal base for national bans on these 4.

Additionally, since the complaint was lodged on 13 May, the legally binding Cartagena Protocol came into effect on 11 September 2003. This allows use of regulatory decisions based on the precautionary principle, saying "Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientifc information ... shall not prevent that party from taking a decision .... to avoid or minimise such potential adverse effects." Additionally, this requires any company trying to export a GMO for cultivation in another country to get the prior approval of the Government of that country before it proceeds (if the GMO is only for food or feed use, not cultivation, only prior notification is required, although the country could still decide to prohibit the import).

Additionally, the Codex Alimentarius (A WHO and FAO body) GMO guidelines came into force in July 2003. These require a "pre-market safety assessment of ... both intended and unintended effects ... relevant to human health." This is interesting, as the US does not have an official pre-market assessment process (only voluntary notification by the companies), so really it cannot now expect other countries to accept its GM exports without official screening.

The interim WTO ruling was reported in the US press, with the Washington Post helpfully remarking:
"How much practical effect the trade ruling will have remains to be seen, though, as resistance to gene-altered crops remains high among European consumers. Most European grocery chains refuse to stock products made with genetically engineered ingredients."


Press Statement

WTO ruling - "No change to de facto European ban on GMOs"

8 February 2006 - for immediate release

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute panel has concluded in an interim report that the six-year moratorium on the approval of new GMOs for import into the EU (which occurred while the European Union was revising it’s regulations on GMOs) was against international trade rules - as are the national bans of various European countries on approved GMOs.

The Soil Association condemns the US, Canada and Argentina for attempting to use trade rules to force GM food and crops onto Europe.1 However, the WTO ruling should have little impact on Europe's acceptance of GMOs or its current regulations.

After they started growing GM crops, the US lost $300 million of annual exports of maize to Europe and Canada lost its C$300 million annual exports of oilseed rape to Europe. They argued this was due to Europe's restrictions on GM imports. In fact, this trade was lost because of the overwhelming market rejection of GMOs since 1999 by European supermarkets and food manufacturers in response to the strong consumer opposition to GMOs. Given this overriding and remaining public and market resistance, the WTO’s ruling is of little real significance.

Gundula Azeez, Policy Manager, said:
"The public can rest assured that this ruling does not change the fact that in Europe it is the consumer and not the WTO who decides whether there is any market for N. American GM produce. The European Commission must refuse to pay any compensation to these countries. They have wilfully insisted on producing something for which there is no market, and are deluded if they think this ruling will change that.

The public is right to continue to reject GM food. Emerging scientific evidence from recent animal feeding trials show a range of unpredicted negative impacts on health from eating GMOs.

Currently, the only significant market for GMOs in Europe is as animal feed, as produce from GM-fed animals does not have to be labelled. The only certain way to avoid such products is to buy organic food".

For further information please contact:
Gundula Azeez: 0117 987 4560

Notes to editors:

1. The trade complaint was lodged by the US, Canada and Argentina. The WTO panel’s final ruling is expected in a couple of months. The European Union will have 60 days to appeal.

For media enquiries contact the Soil Association press office 0117 914 2448 /