ECONOMY

Anger over GMO ruling

BRUSSELS – European countries bristled yesterday at a world trade ruling that touches on national sovereignty over foods containing or consisting of genetically modified organisms (GMO), with some saying they would do their level best to keep farming GMO-free. Europe’s consumers are well-known for their skepticism, if not hostility, to GMO crops, often dubbed as «Frankenstein foods.» The biotech industry insists its products are perfectly safe, however, and no different from conventional foods. Late on Tuesday, a World Trade Organization panel ruled that various EU countries – Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg – had broken international trade rules by imposing national bans on marketing and growing specific GMOs. Some of those countries reacted angrily to the WTO ruling, saying they would defend their legal right to block EU-approved products if they wanted, since this was the will of consumers. EU law dictates that such bans must be scientifically justified. Austria, one of the EU’s staunchest biotech skeptics, has banned imports of three GMO maize types and is considering a ban on growing a GMO rapeseed. Government officials say they will continue to be as restrictive as possible for the time being. «The protection of people and the environment have absolute priority, and the most recent scientific research vindicates our cautious approach in this matter,» said Austrian Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat, responsible for national GMO policy. «We will exhaust all possibilities to keep Austria’s agriculture GM-free and ensure consumers’ safety.» Greece, also traditionally opposed to biotech foods, agreed. «Greece is against genetically modified foods. All prefectures have declared their area GMO-free. We need to discuss with Brussels and scientists safeguards before we lift the ban,» a Greek Agricultural Development Ministry source told Reuters. Last June, EU governments rebuffed attempts by the European Commission to order the five countries to lift their national GMO bans – the first time that the bloc has managed to agree to anything on biotech policy since 1998. The Commission did not think the bans were justified, and nor did the WTO in its ruling on the case filed by Argentina, Canada and the United States. It also said the EU’s de facto GMO moratorium between 1999 and 2003 broke world trade rules. France still skeptical France, home to anti-GMO and free trade firebrand Jose Bove, has a longstanding consumer opposition to biotech food. Europe’s agricultural powerhouse France bans two types of GMO rapeseed but has allowed some small-scale growing of GMO maize. French consumer and farming groups deplored the WTO ruling, insisting that a large majority of consumers firmly opposed GMOs and that the EU’s temporary approvals ban was correct. A poll published in France this week showed that 78 percent of those questioned would like a temporary ban on GMO products in order to evaluate their health and environmental impact. In Italy, Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno said it was very serious for the WTO to take an «unbalanced stance» against European norms on GMO products. «We would not want this verdict to represent an attempt to undermine the legislative sovereignty of the European Union,» he said in a statement. «In the past few months, there are many products that have been authorized by the European Commission and no country has maintained a protectionist moratorium on these products.» Green groups said consumer resistance to GMOs has increased in Europe since the three major GMO growers filed their WTO complaint in 2003. The ruling will not encourage consumers to buy more GMOs, they say, and maybe make the opposition stronger. «The WTO has bluntly ruled that European safeguards should be sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations,» said Adrian Bebb, a GMO campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. «This will backfire and lead to even greater opposition to genetically modified food and crops. Consumers worldwide will not be bullied into eating GM foods.» US officials regretted there was a level of misinformation in Europe about the benefits of biotech crops but hoped that the WTO ruling would let the EU open its doors more to GMO imports. «It is unfortunate the extent to which certain groups have decided to demagogue the issue and mischaracterize the quality… and environmental implications of biotechnology,» Deputy US Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters. «The proof will be in trade flows and transparency and ease of approval processes. Time will tell,» she said in Brussels.