WASHINGTON, D.C. May 14,
2003 -- CropChoice news: The Bush administration filed
suit today at the World Trade Organization to force Europe to lift
its ban on genetically modified food, a move that was postponed
earlier this year by the debate on Iraq.
The administration was backed by the speaker of the House, J. Dennis
Hastert of Illinois, and other senior Republican and Democratic
lawmakers who have been promoting the lawsuit for months. American
farmers have led the complaints, saying they have invested in the
technology needed to raise genetically modified crops only to see
one of the biggest markets — Europe — closed to their
Robert B. Zoellick, the United States trade representative, said
the administration had run out of patience waiting for the European
Union to lift what he called a five-year-old moratorium that blocked
several hundred million dollars of American exports into Europe.
Worse, he said, European attitudes were spreading unfounded fears
in the developing world, where the need is greatest for the increased
yield of genetically modified crops.
"In developing countries, these crops can spell the difference
between life and death," he said. "The human cost of rejecting
this new technology is enormous."
Mr. Hastert estimated that American farmers lost $300 million in
corn exports each year because of the European policy toward genetically
modified food and animal feed.
"There's no question in my mind that the European Union's
protectionist, discriminatory trade policies are costing American
agriculture and our nation's economy hundreds of millions of dollars
each and every year," Mr. Hastert said.
But European officials said today that they were dumbfounded by
the suit. They said there was no moratorium on genetically modified
"The U.S. claims that there is a so-called moratorium, but
the fact is that the E.U. has authorized G.M. varieties in the past
and is currently processing applications," said Pascal Lamy,
the top European trade official. "So what is the real U.S.
motive in bringing a case?"
In practice, the Europeans did have an informal moratorium on new
varieties of genetically modified food from 1998 until last year,
when the E.U. instituted a new regulatory system that has approved
two applications, with others pending.
At the center of the debate over genetically modified crops, if
not the suit filed today, is a growing disagreement between the
United States and Europe over what steps are necessary to protect
public health and the environment.
European consumers are far more wary of genetically modified food
than are Americans, and many object to what they consider aggressive
American promotion of those foods, influenced by agribusiness.
The European Union is demanding that genetically modified food
be labeled as such. They also want to be able to trace the origins
of the food's ingredients and are near completion of new legislation
to require both.
The United States opposes such labels and tracing mechanisms, saying
they are too costly and impractical.
Margot Wallstrom, the European environmental commissioner, said
the European legislature would complete its measure to require labeling
and methods for tracing food and animal feed that is genetically
"This U.S. move is unhelpful," she said. "It can
only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult."
The United States agriculture secretary, Ann M. Veneman, said today
that the case was aimed atprotecting American farmers and ranchers.
"With this case," she said, "we are fighting for
the interests of American agriculture. This case is about playing
by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed
to comply with its W.T.O. obligations."
European officials lashed back at the administration today, refusing
to be blamed for blocking genetically modified food aid and reminding
the United States that it had refused to join 100 other countries
and sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. That agreement sets
out rules for exporters and importers of genetically modified crops
to provide the proper information about the food and feed.
The United States was joined by Argentina, Canada and Egypt. Australia,
Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru
and Uruguay expressed support as third parties without direct commercial
Many of these countries are in negotiations with the United States
for a free trade agreement.
Nonprofit groups opposed to the W.T.O.'s influence said the case
showed how globalization undermined local and national governments.
"The people eating the food or living in the environment that
could be affected must decide domestic policy, not some secretive
W.T.O. tribunal of three trade experts," said Lori Wallach,
director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.
But several African farmers and scientists at a news conference
here joined Mr. Zoellick and Ms. Veneman in praising the American
"We believe it is better to give a person food to eat today
than wait 10 years to be sure it is safe," said Darin Makinde,
dean of the school of agriculture at the University of Venda in
"Two elephants are fighting — the United States and
Europe — and it is Africa that is suffering," he said.