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May 11, 2006

Final WTO Tribunal Decision on GMO Policy Reaffirms Lower Panel: WTO Wades into Food Fight, but Stops Short of Ruling Against Underlying GMO Policy

Statement of Lori Wallach, Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch Division

The final ruling, issued Wednesday night, by a World Trade Organization (WTO) tribunal that labeled delays in Europe’s approval process for genetically modified organism (GMO) products a WTO violation is dreadful, but not surprising, given the WTO’s long record of inappropriately meddling in non-trade issues. However, that case is already moot because what the WTO labeled as “undue delay” that violates WTO rules was simply the normal democratic process of the European Union sorting out the complex issues of developing a GMO regulatory policy. Now that the new GMO regulatory policy is in place, the real question is whether the United States will file a follow-on WTO challenge attacking the underlying European GMO policy, which includes mandatory labeling, segregation of GMO products and traceability of such products.

The WTO’s invasion of such a hypersensitive, value-laden policy about something as intimate as the very nature of food on people’s dinner tables is certain to throw even more doubt on the already-shaky Doha Round WTO expansion talks. If the WTO can meddle with what food comes into our homes, the last thing we should do is expand the power or reach of this unaccountable, corporate-controlled body.

Nothing does more to deepen public antipathy to the WTO than these U.S.-European WTO battles over non-trade issues that expose the WTO’s curtailment   of our democratic rights to set our own domestic policies. The more the two biggest backers of the WTO keep shooting at each other’s domestic policies using the WTO, the more damaged the WTO becomes and the clearer it is that the democratic policies protecting our families’ health and safety are among the WTO’s biggest casualties.

Large U.S. agribusinesses eager to force feed consumers products about which they have deep concerns have been lobbying the U.S. Trade Representative to file a second WTO case focused on the substance of the European GMO regulatory policy. The case behind today’s ruling was limited to a challenge of procedural issues regarding how the policy was developed.

The United States has already lost the European market for GMOs. No WTO suit will force a savvy European consumer who enjoys mandatory GMO labeling to eat any product he or she doesn’t want. This WTO GMO suit is a bald-faced attempt by the United States to frighten other nations away from following Europe’s example of regulating these products to protect the environment and public health.

Today, half the world’s population lives in countries that require pre-market approval of GMOs. Even in the United States, where agribusiness has secured a deregulated market for GMOs and is conducting an open GMO experiment on the U.S. environment and U.S. consumers, there are three counties in California that ban all GMO crops. In the developing world, South Korea was once the No. 2 buyer of U.S. corn, but now buys GMO-free corn elsewhere. China now looks to Brazil for GMO-free soy. These are market losses for U.S. GMO producers based on choices by U.S. agribusiness to pursue the GMO strategy, which makes resorting to the WTO, a body allegedly promoting free markets, a perverse way to try to remedy bad market choices by some players.

Scientific evidence of environmental harms caused by genetically engineered crops and the threat to human health posed by pharmaceuticals grown in food crops will not dissipate, and neither will concentrated efforts by concerned government officials to regulate these crops to protect biodiversity, ecosystems and human health. Trying to use the WTO to reverse this trend will only boomerang on the WTO.

The WTO’s declarations that national bans on specific GMO products are WTO-illegal because they were not prepared using WTO-approved risk assessment procedures will only send shock waves around the world. From California to Saudi Arabia, there are hundreds of declared GMO-free zones. This attack on democracy will not get your Bt-corn tortillas on supermarket shelves any faster, but will prompt more and more consumers around the globe to enact policies declaring their regional and national governments GMO-free and to campaign against the WTO.

Forcing unwanted GMOs on unwilling nations is not just stupid politics – it is a violation of international law. The Biosafety Protocol, adopted in 2000, protects the right of nations to regulate these products in the public interest. The best way for nations to greet this news from the WTO is to stand their ground and implement much-needed pre-market approval, safety testing, traceability and labeling programs.

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