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In May 2003, a US led coalition filed a formal complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), thus starting the latest high-profile trade dispute. The Bush administration is accusing the European Union of blocking trade by restricting GMOs, by
- Suspending any consideration of new GMO applications
- Failing to approve GMO products since 1998
- Allowing EU member states to invoke national bans on GMOs
The current dispute is between the US and the EU, but there is little doubt that it is also meant as a warning to other countries not to restrict GMO food and farming. The US has already threatened to use the WTO against a number of small countries such as Bolivia, Croatia or Sri Lanka who were considering either GMO legislation or bans.
After the US had filed their complaint, an initial consultation phase was held, attempting to resolve the issue with negotiations between the parties. Failing to do so, the US, Canada and Argentina requested the establishment of a panel that will receive submissions from the parties. A first report is expected in the Summer 2004. If the parties do not accept the findings (which is likely), an appeal phase is planned for the second half of 2004, after which the WTO will make its final ruling.
It is true that no new GM foods have been approved since 1998. The US, in putting trade before the protection of the environment and public health, fails to acknowledge that during these years the EU was developing regulations to protect the environment and give consumers better information. So far the European Union has adopted new legislation that makes labelling of GM food and GM animal feed mandatory.
However, the EU’s legislative framework on GMOs is far from complete and is still being developed. One of the biggest loopholes that still exists is the fact that GM producers are not liable in case of damage to health or environment. What’s more, rules to protect conventional and organic farming from GM contamination are not yet in place. The EU legislation on GMOs sits in stark contrast to the US system. The US relies on biotech companies supplying information on a voluntary basis.
The US argues that US farmers have lost exports because they grow GM crops that are not approved in Europe. President Bush later added that the EU’s de facto moratorium was impeding efforts to feed the world. He stated that “European governments should join -- not hinder -- the great cause of ending hunger in Africa.” Even US studies show that GMOs do not lead to increased crop yields, and even if they did: The problem is not that there is not enough food on this planet but how wealth is distributed -- people mainly go hungry due to poverty. People can’t afford food or the land to grow it.
If the Bush administration and the biotech companies were seriously concerned about hunger in developing countries, they would promote land reforms to secure access to land for poor people. GMOs won’t deliver food security but will quite possibly make the situation worse as biotech companies attempt to make third world farmers dependent on them rather than remain self-sufficient: For example, GMO seeds are patented, meaning farmers are not allowed to save seeds from each harvest for replanting but must buy new seed annually.
The WTO will rule whether people have a right to decide what they eat and farm. It can be expected that the US will continue the case even if the de facto moratorium is lifted and that they will also attack the new labelling laws, trying to deny European citizens the right to choose GMO free food. Polls show over 70% of European citizens do not want GMO food and farming, and 90% want GM food to be labelled. Friends of the Earth believes that it is the right of the public, not of the WTO, to decide what people eat and what crops they farm.
Further, decisions concerning regulation of international trade in GMOs should be made in accordance with the UN Biosafety Protocol and not by the WTO. Governments around the world have the right to develop laws to protect their environment and the well-being of their citizens from the risks of genetically modified food and farming, including the right to impose a ban on such products or strict labelling requirements. Those laws have to be based on the Precautionary Principle which requires that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage then despite lack of scientific certainty it is better to act now to be safe than wait to be sorry.
Friends of the Earth strongly demands that the WTO must not deny people the right to know and choose what they eat and farm. It must also not undermine the right of the European Union and others to take appropriate steps to protect their citizens and the environment from GMO food and farming. Consequently, the WTO has to dismiss the complaints of the United States of America, Argentinaand Canada.
In Cancun, during the WTO Ministerial meeting, one day before the Cartagena Biosafety Protocolwent into force on 11 September 2003, Friends of the Earth launched the campaign “Bite Back: WTO Hands Off Our Food!” with the support of the ActionAid Alliance, Jose Bove’s Confédération Paysanne, the International Gender & Trade Network, Public Citizen, Public Services International and Vandana Shiva’s Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. These groups represent consumers, environmentalists, farmers, trade unionists and developing countries.
The campaign aims at collecting Citizens‘ Objections to the WTO, demanding that the complaint be dismissed and that the right of the EU and other countries to protect their citizens is not undermined and the right of the people to choose GM free food be protected. Over hundred organisations have already expressed their support for the campaign, and activities are planned all around Europe, including at the European Social Forum in Paris, November 2003. Individuals and organisations can sign the Citizens‘ Objections online at the campaign web site www.bite-back.org.
The Biosafety Protocol is the first treaty that officially seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by GM. It will require all exporters of GM which are to be released into the environment to take measures to prevent the contamination of GM seed products by implementing an `identity preservation' system. It also allows countries to take a precautionary approach if faced with scientific uncertainty over the impacts on the environment.