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The U.S. Threats Against Europe's GMO Policy and the WTO SPS Agreement

On May 14, the Bush administration announced that it would initiate action at the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the European Union’s freeze on approvals of new genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds and foods while a policy on segregation and labeling of these items is being finalized.

Until the United States launched this attack on Europe’s GMO policy, the most high-profile victim of challenges to food labeling rules had been Flipper. On New Year’s Eve, the Bush administration launched an underhanded, ongoing attempt to dramatically weaken the popular U.S. “dolphin-safe” tuna labeling regulation in the name of complying with a trade ruling. But this attack on European GMO policy goes further.

This attack – which the Bush administration is likely to win if the case proceeds to a WTO tribunal – shows once again how the secretive trade organization – the WTO – can be used by special interests to attack health, safety and environmental rules that a majority of people in a country have demanded and obtained in open democratic venues. This pattern of WTO attacks is systematically undermining the practice and principle of democracy: The people who are eating the food in question or living in the environment in question ought to decide the policies that affect their lives.

The Bush administration has been spinning quite a line about why it is pursuing this case, announcing that the action was taken to protect the interests of Africa and those suffering from hunger there. This is remarkably cynical; in fact, the administration has been engaged in a running fight with a bloc of African countries who, on their own initiative, sought international rules to regulate GMOs through negotiation of a Biosafety Protocol. The Biosafety Treaty was completed despite U.S. administration attempts to undercut it. The treaty allows the sorts of policies Europe and many African countries and now major U.S. trade partners from China to Brazil are also enacting regarding the segregation and labeling of GMOs.

What is the real story? By launching this attack, the Bush administration has put the interests of its agribusiness supporters over many of the values it purports to seek for the world: democracy, accountability and openness.

European reaction to this case will only increase tensions leading to the 5th WTO Ministerial, to be held Sept.10-14 in Cancun, Mexico. This U.S. action likely will exacerbate anti-U.S. sentiment generated among Europeans by U.S. military action in Iraq. Such an aggressive move is likely to harden the resolve of the EU member governments with the greatest concerns about GMOs.

The U.S.-led coalition supporting this case is already shaky. On May 28, Egypt withdrew its initial support of the GMO action at the WTO, stating its “desire to reduce further distortions and impediments to international trade that may result due to the further pursuit of this matter.”

[i]World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO), “WTO agreements and Public Health: A Joint Study by the WHO and WTO Secretariat," WHO ISBN 92 4 156214 5, 2002 at 63.99.

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