Trade War Over Biotech Food: Now, Later or Never?

Trade War Over Biotech Food: Now, Later or Never?

A senior government official, farm interests and policy scholars debated the timing and objectives of a possible U.S. challenge in the World Trade Organization (WTO) over European treatment of biotechnology crops today at a policy dialogue sponsored by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology.

With European markets essentially closed to new agricultural biotechnology products for the past four years, the U.S. government has threatened a WTO challenge. But the timing of the case has been brought into question by foreign policy considerations that such a move could add fuel to the fire of trans-Atlantic relations already troubled by the threat of an Iraq war and other issues.

"While American farmers have largely embraced biotechnology, Europeans seem to have rejected it for a number of different reasons," said Michael Rodemeyer, executive director of the Pew Initiative. "Even if the U.S. wins a WTO case, it risks further inflaming European public opinion about GM foods, particularly given present EU-U.S. tensions over foreign policy. At the same time, U.S. farmers are concerned that EU-type restrictions on GM food could spread to other parts of the world if not challenged."

The value of U.S.-European agricultural trade was $6.4 billion in 2001, making the EU the fourth largest single market for U.S. farm products. There are 18 biotech food products approved in the EU, but a de facto moratorium on further approvals has been in place since June 1999, with 13 more applications pending.

In addition to the moratorium, the EU is moving forward with new labeling and traceability requirements for biotechnology food and feed that will require almost all biotechnology food products to be labeled. Under these provisions, even highly refined products like corn and soybean oil produced from biotechnology crops would have to be labeled, even though the products may have no detectable traces of biotech DNA. The new rules would also require biotech feed products to be labeled. European representatives have, in the past, linked approval and passage of the new labeling and traceability rules to a lifting of the moratorium on new biotech crop approvals, but U.S. patience is wearing thin, with the Bush administration repeatedly threatening an imminent WTO case.

Christopher A. Padilla, Assistant United States Trade Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Liaison said, "For more than four years, Europe has refused even to consider accepting biotech foods. Several European officials have stated publicly that this moratorium is unjustified and illegal under WTO rules, and also admit that such foods are perfectly safe for human consumption. The effects of the European ban are now spreading to other countries and regions, with devastating consequences in famine-stricken Africa. Meanwhile, well-fed Europeans offer nothing but more delays, more excuses, and more obstacles to safe food. Enough is enough."

Clyde Prestowitz, President of the Economic Strategy Institute and author of a forthcoming book on how the world sees the United States, said: "A WTO case to force Europe to accept GMOs is the surest way to guarantee a European boycott of GMOs and a hardening of irrational European fears and positions. Showing restraint and a willingness to listen, rather than resorting to coercive action, would give a welcome relief to our already degraded image in Europe, at a critical moment in the history of the transatlantic relationship."

Bob Stallman, President, American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) said, "The EU has not made sufficient progress in lifting the new biotech crop moratorium. In the meantime, U.S. producers and the agricultural industry continue to lose sales of hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The United States has exercised patience as the EU grappled with this internally sensitive political issue. But, AFBF believes it is time to engage the EU in a WTO dispute settlement proceeding against its illegal moratorium. AFBF is concerned that the EU's proposed labeling and traceability regulations, which are currently are under consideration for adoption and touted by the EU as its answer to the moratorium, are equally non-WTO compliant. The proposed regulations are discriminatory in that labeling would be required for all products made from imported biotech ingredients, yet no labeling will be required for products made with biotech processing aids such as enzymes and yeasts used in the production of cheese, beer and other products. Unless significant changes are made to make the regulations compatible with the EU's international obligations, AFBF will urge that the U.S. be equally prepared to engage the EU in dispute settlement proceeding on the labeling and traceability regulations. The United States must strongly reject the acceptance of unjustified and trade-distorting traceability and labeling regulations as a condition for the lifting of the EU's moratorium on biotech product approvals."

Julia Moore, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said, "Slowly, Europe is winning back consumer confidence in its ability to safely regulate food through tougher new national and EC food standards agencies. Emerging GM products, like a hypoallergenic peanut and a low-protein rice tolerable for kidney disease sufferers, eventually will demonstrate some of the advantages of agbiotechnology to European shoppers. And a new labeling scheme will offer consumers a choice - and history shows that when given a clearly labeled choice, Europe's customers will make purchases based on other factors beside GM content. A WTO action by the U.S. against the moratorium will only harden European consumer resistance to this new technology. And with more than 35 countries now either having in place or announced laws which require the labeling of food containing GM ingredients or GM import restrictions, a WTO case will spread and not contain that opposition."

The policy dialogue, entitled "Should the U.S. Press a WTO Case against Europe's Genetically Modified Food Policies?" is one in a series hosted by the Pew Initiative and was organized in an effort to stimulate an informative discussion about the pros and cons of launching the trade case, its timing, the cultural context of the disagreement and the economic and foreign policy ramifications of this trans-Atlantic food fight. It was moderated by Ray Suarez, Senior Correspondent for PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and author, The Old Neighborhood: What We Lost in the Great Suburban Migration: 1966-1999. To read more about the dialogue or to watch the webcast of the event, go to

To read more about the dialogue or to watch the archived webcast of the event, go to A transcript will be posted shortly as well.

The Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research project whose goal is to inform the public and policymakers on issues about genetically modified food and agricultural biotechnology, including its importance, as well as concerns about it and its regulation. It is funded by a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the University of Richmond.