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Trade war over genetically modified food

The European Union and the United States have strong disagreements over the EU's regulation of genetically modified food. The US claims these regulations violate free trade agreements, the EU counter-position is that free trade is not truly free without informed consent.

In Europe, a series of unrelated food crises[?] during the 1990s have created consumer apprehension about food safety in general, eroded public trust in government oversight of the food industry[?], and left some consumers unwilling to consider "science" to be a guarantee of quality.

This has further fueled widespread public concern about genetically modified organisms (GMO), in terms of potential environmental protection (in particular biodiversity), health and safety of consumers. There is already some strong evidence that the cultivation of a genetically modified plant may lead to environmental changes. However, whether a genetically modified plant can itself harm the environment is a matter of controversy among scientists.

Although some claim genetically modified foods may even be safer than conventional[?] products, many European consumers are nevertheless demanding the right to make an informed choice. Some polls indicate that Americans would also like labelling but it has not yet become a major issue. New EU regulations should require strict labelling and traceability of all food and animal feed[?] containing more than 0.5 percent GM ingredients. Directives, such as directive 2001/18/EC, were designed to require authorisation for the placing on the market of GMO, in accordance with the precautionary principle. (see also Tax, tariff and trade).

Despite the fact that no scientific study has yet shown genetically modified food to be harmful to humans, a 2003 survey by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of people in all countries surveyed felt that GM foods were "bad". The lowest scores were in the US and Canada, where 55% and 63% (respectively) were against, while the highest were in Germany and France with 81% and 89% disapproving. The survey also showed a strong tendency for women to be more opposed to GM foods than men. [1] (http://people-press.org/commentary/display.php3?AnalysisID=66)

Friedrich-Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, member of the German Green Party and vice president of the Landwirtschaftsausschuss (committee of agriculture) of the European Commission said on the 1 July 2003: "In America 55% of the consumers are against GM food and 90% in favor of a clear labelling. The Bush government is ignoring the demand of his own people."

Table of contents

European ban on genetically modified crops

In 1999, a 4 year ban was pronounced on new genetically modified crops[?]. At the end of 2002, European Union environment ministers agreed new controls on GMOs that could eventually lead the 15-members bloc to reopen its markets to GM foods. European Union ministers agreed to new labelling controls for genetically modified goods which will have to carry a special harmless DNA sequence (a DNA code bar[?]) identifying the origin of the crops, making it easier for regulators to spot contaminated crops, feed, or food, and enabling products to be withdrawn from the food chain should problems arise. A series of additional sequences of DNA with encrypted information about the company or what was done to the product could also be added to provide more data. (see Mandatory labelling).

Agricultural trade market between USA and Europe

The European Union and United States are in strong disagreement over the EU's ban on most genetically modified foods.

The value of agricultural trade between the US and the European is estimated at $57 billion at the beginning of the 21st Century, and some in the U.S., especially farmers and food manufacturers, are concerned that the new proposal by the European Union could be a barrier to much of that trade.

In 1998, the United States exported $63 million worth of corn to the EU, but the exports decreased down to $12.5 million in 2002.

The drop-off might also be due to falling commodities prices, less demand due to the recession, U.S. corn being priced out of foreign markets by a strong dollar, and importing countries reaction to the planned invasion in Iraq. But farm industry advocates blame the EU's ban.

European proposal over genetically modified food

The European Parliament's Environment Committee[?] proposal, adopted in the summer of 2002 and expected to be implemented in 2003 has deep cultural roots, which are difficult to understand for the US agricultural community. It requires that all food/feed containing or derived from genetically modified organisms be labelled and any GM ingredients in food be traced. It would also require documentation tracing biotechnological products through each step of the grain handling and food production processes.

The new European tax, tariff and trade proposal would particularly affect US maize gluten and soybean exports, as a high percentage of these crops are genetically modified in the USA (about 25 percent of US maize and 65 percent of soybeans are genetically modified in 2002).

The ultimate resolution of this case is widely thought to rest on labelling rather than food aid[?]. Many European consumers are asking for food regulation (demanding labels that identify which food has been genetically modified), while the American agricultural industry is arguing for free trade (and is strongly opposed to labelling, saying it gives the food a negative connotation).

Lori Wallach[?], director of Public Citizen's Global Watch[?] indicates that American agricultural industry is "using trade agreements to determine domestic health, safety and environmental rules" because they fear that "by starting to distinguish which food is genetically modified, then they will have to distinguish energy standards, toxic standards that are different than those the European promotes".

The American Agricultural Department officials answer that since the United States do not require labelling, Europe should not require labelling either. They claim mandatory labelling could imply there is something wrong with genetically modified food, which would be also a trade barrier[?]. Current U.S. laws do not require GM crops to be labelled or traced because U.S. regulators do not believe that GM crops pose any unique risks over conventional food[?]. Europe answers that the labelling and traceability requirements are not only limited to GM food, but will apply to any agricultural goods.

The American agricultural industry also complain about the costs implied by the labelling.

Official US complaint with the WTO

The ban over agricultural biotechnology commodities is said by some Americans to breach World Trade Organisation rules. Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, indicated the European position toward GMO was thought of as "immoral" since it could lead to starvation in the developing world, as seen in some famine-threatened African countries (eg, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique) refusing to accept US aid because it contains GM food.

Zoellick's critics argue that US concern over Third World starvation is merely a cover for other issues. Some money for development aid is used by the American government via the World Food Program (WFP) to help their farmers by buying up overproduction and giving it to the UN organisation. GM-scepticism interferes with this program. American farmers lost marketshare in certain countries after changing to genetically modified food because of sceptical consumers.

Another European response to the claims of immorality is that the EU gives 7 times more in development aid than the US.

In May 2003, after initial delay due to the war against Iraq, the Bush administration officially accused the European Union of violating international trade agreements, in blocking imports of U.S. farm products through its long-standing ban on genetically modified food. Robert Zoellick announced the filing of a formal complaint with the WTO challenging the moratorium after months of negotiations trying to get it lifted voluntarily. The complaint was also filed by Argentina, Canada, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru and Uruguay. The formal WTO case challenging the EU's regulatory system was in particular lobbied by U.S. biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Aventis[?] and big agricultural groups such as the National Corn Growers Association[?].

EU officials questioned the action, saying it will further damage trade relations already strained by the U.S. decision to launch a war against Iraq despite opposition from members of the U.N. Security Council. The US move was also interpretated as a sanction against EU for requesting the end of illegal tax breaks for exporters or face up to $4 billion in trade sanctions in retaliation for Washington's failure to change the tax law, which the WTO ruled illegal four years ago.

Ratification of the Biosafety Protocol by the EU parliament

In June 2003, the European Union Parliament ratified a three-year-old U.N. biosafety protocol regulating international trade in genetically modified food, expected to come into force in fall 2003 since the necessary number of ratification was reached in May 2003. The protocol lets countries ban imports of a genetically modified product if they feel there is not enough scientific evidence the product is safe and requires exporters to label shipments containing genetically altered commodities such as corn or cotton. It makes clear that products from new technologies must be based on the precautionary principle and allow developing nations to balance public health against economic benefits.

Jonas Sjoestedt, a Swedish Left member of the EU assembly, said that "this legislation should help the EU to counter recent accusations by the U.S administration that the EU is to blame for the African rejection of GM food aid last year".

The United States did not sign the protocol, saying it was opposed to labeling and fought import bans.

Lifting of the ban

On July 2, 2003, the European parliament approved two laws that will allow the EU to lift its controversial ban on GM food. The first law will require labelling for GMO-containing food above 0.9%. It will be applied for human food and animal feed as well. However, animals fed with transgenic cereals will not be included in the labelling. The second law will make mandatory labeling of any food contaminated by non-authorized GMO (in the Union) over 0.5%. This amount will be set for 3 years. After 3 years, all non-authorized GMO contamined food will be banned. Traceability of GMO products will be mandatory, from sowing to final product.

The current ban is expected to be lifted in the fall of 2003.

Effect of cultural differences between US and Europe

The U.S. population has, historically, placed a considerable degree of trust in the regulatory oversight provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its agencies. There is little tradition of people having a close relationship with their food, with the overwhelming majority of people having bought their food in supermarkets for years. But the 2003 survey by the Pew Research Centrer showed that even in the U.S. 55% see GM food as "bad" food.

In Europe, and particularly in the U.K., there is less trust of regulatory oversight of the food chain. In many parts of Europe, a larger measure of food is produced by small, local growers using traditional (non-intensive & organic) methods (see local food).

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