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Sprouting EU Food Wars

Author: Toni Johnson
November 20, 2007

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This fall the European Union allowed imports of four new genetically modified crops (Reuters)—three types of corn and one sugar beet. The approval came through a default legal process that kicks in when EU environmental ministers cannot agree. Since 2004, a number of modified foods have been allowed into the EU market this way. But individual countries, including Austria, Hungary, and Italy have established national bans in defiance of EU rulings, and at least thus far EU ministers have not stopped them. Now a bigger battle is looming, including possible WTO sanctions if EU countries continue to block imports.

Just days after the EU’s latest crop approval, its environment officials failed—for the third time—to agree to end Austria’s import ban (EUObserver) on genetically modified corn. The ban dates to the 1990s, and was deemed a trade violation in 2006 by the World Trade Organization. The European Commission, which already twice found the corn to be safe, had until November 21 to bring Austria in line, or risks facing WTO sanctions, but has been given an extension (AP) until January 11, 2008. A Wall Street Journal editorial noted that both the WTO and the EU allow countries to ban unsafe foods, but added that in Austria’s case “the facts don’t line up with their fears.”

Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are designed to improve crop yields, withstand herbicide treatment, resist insects, and even in some cases deliver vaccines (Scientific American) or extra vitamins (BBC). But some environmental and consumer activists believe genetically modified crops—sometimes dubbed “frankenfoods” by critics—could harm biodiversity and potentially be toxic (Deutsche-Welle). The European Commission’s eight-year “de facto moratorium” (Euractiv.com) on GM foods ended with the establishment of a tough labeling law, but did not resolve a trade fight with the United States. Nor did it placate European fears over genetically modified foods.

Earlier this year, EU regulators failed to reach agreement on Hungary’s two-year-old ban on GM corn. Meanwhile, Italy’s state-run science agency finds itself besieged by accusations that it suppressed findings (Foodnavigator.com) from a field trial on corn produced by Monsanto, the world’s leading producer of GM seeds. Three million Italians have signed a petition for an “unlimited moratorium” (AFP) on modified produce. Germany is moving on a plan to approve GM crops, but only if they are accompanied by strict environmental monitoring. And French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently suspended cultivation of modified crops until their safety is evaluated, saying he didn’t want to contradict EU law but made the choice in line with “precautionary principle” (Reuters). One environmental advocate called the pro-business president’s shift “seismic.”

This resistance to GM crops could be a setback for an industry struggling to get off the ground in Europe. European GM growers reported 77 percent growth (CORDIS) last year, in terms of total area planted. Yet even with these gains, only about one percent of the world’s genetically modified corn is grown in Europe, and sixty varieties of crops remain backlogged for approval. EuropaBio, a European biotech lobby group, called for automatic approval of GM foods that pass their risk assessments. The United States, Argentina, Canada, and Brazil pick up the slack, accounting for 94 percent (PDF) of global GMO plantings, according to a 2006 paper published by Harvard’s Belfer Center. The paper notes that the environmental effects from GM crops planted in these countries have been “strongly positive to date.”

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