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A bitter harvest

(Monday, Feb. 28, 2005 -- CropChoice news) --

1. A bitter harvest
2. Europe's inconsistent approach to GMOs exposed

1. A bitter harvest

Sue Mayer and Robin Grove-White, Tuesday February 22 2005, The Guardian

The final act of a controversy over GM crops that sets America against Europe unfolds today in Geneva. The World Trade Organisation will hear the closing arguments in a case where the public authority of both the European commission and the WTO is at stake.

In May 2003 the US, Argentina and Canada, urged on by their industry lobbies, complained to the WTO about Europe's moratorium on GM approvals, imposed in October 1998. As the biggest producers of GM crops, they felt the European position was damaging their trade interests and argued that it could not be scientifically justified.

Throughout the European Union there has been extensive concern about GM crops. Among the public's fears is the potential for long-term harm to the environment - for example through the increased use of herbicides and the gene flow to wild species - and to human health, should new allergens appear. In a wider context of uncertainties about the future of agriculture and of a pervasive lack of confidence in official approaches to the handling of technological risk, consumer rejection of GM has been widespread.

In response to these worries, the EU revised its regulatory framework to include wider issues such as traceablility, labelling and impacts on farmland wildlife. This process is still under way, with countries developing national plans on how, if GM crops are grown, to limit contamination of non-GM crops, and how to ascribe liability should harm result.

The EU's initial submissions to the WTO dispute panel argued that its approach was necessarily "prudent and precautionary". It emphasised that the US, Canada and Argentina were challenging the right of countries to establish levels of protection from the risks of GM appropriate to their circumstances - and that the risks and uncertainties were complex and serious. The outcome of the case would be of enormous significance worldwide.

Last summer, however, while arguments were still being put, the European commission awarded the first marketing approvals since October 1998. The awards - for importing two varieties of GM maize, for food and feed - ended the de facto Europe-wide moratorium, but the commission had to use provisions designed for when the council of ministers is unable to reach agreement. In effect, the bureaucracy stepped in and forced through a particular outcome, despite continuing political disagreement across the EU. This now looks set to become a growing pattern.

Significantly, the commission has also shifted its defence in the WTO case in a way that suggests a direct link with this new tactic on GM approvals. The commission is unwilling to publish its recent submissions to the dispute panel (despite requests from Friends of the Earth under freedom of information rules), but it is clear from the US's response, which has been made public, that the commission now wants the dispute to be ruled "moot" because GM approvals have started. In other words, it has caved in to US pressure and is rearranging the pieces.

The commission is playing a dangerous game. Member states and their populations are divided even on whether the two varieties of GM maize recently approved satisfy the EU's own regulatory criteria. However, the commission appears to have decided that satisfying the US is more important than respecting the continuing concern among the people and governments of member states. It is a course of action that could have reverberations for the European project as a whole.

The GM dispute has been unfolding at a time when the future of the EU is a fraught political question in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. Here, referendums on the currency and EU constitution are looming. A key Euro- sceptic weapon is to whip up fear of a remote unaccountable bureaucracy. When the commission acts, as in this case, in a fashion so strongly at odds with the EU's citizens and their political representatives, the result can only be further cynicism and hostility.

The new commission, which came into being last November, has a chance to reconsider the matter anew. Bearing in mind the broader implications of the case for its own future standing, it should look again at the GM approvals granted by its predecessor.

It is not only Europe's institutions that are being tested by the GM dispute. The already tattered credibility of the WTO itself is also at stake.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the US challenge to Europe's initial stance has attracted exceptional interest from civil society groups - to the point where several international coalitions have submitted amicus curiae briefs directly to the panel. All these point to the need for the WTO to rely on more enlightened approaches to risk assessment, respecting the different cultural and environmental circumstances of individual countries. Insistence on a one- size-fits-all approach tailored to US norms - to which Europe now risks deferring - is undermining the WTO's authority. If successive crises of the GM kind are to be avoided, the WTO needs to change - and fast.

Peter Mandelson, the EU's trade commissioner, can play a key role. The outcome of this dispute will affect the basis on which countries can make decisions relevant to their particular environmental, social and cultural needs in today's free-trade world. For the sake of Europe as much as the WTO, he should move to ensure that the commission stands firm on its initial position in the dispute and offers no further hostages to fortune.

Dr Sue Mayer is director of GeneWatch UK; Robin Grove-White is a professor at the Institute for Environment, Philosophy and Public Policy at Lancaster University


2. Europe's inconsistent approach to GMOs exposed

Friends of the Earth Europe, Immediate Press Release, Thursday 24 February 2005

Contact: Adrian Bebb +49 1609 490 1163

EXPOSED - EUROPE'S INCONSISTENT APPROACH TO GMOS Leaked documents reveal EU arguments at the WTO

Brussels, 24 February 2005 - Leaked documents obtained by Friends of the Earth reveal that the Commission is admitting to significant and Legitimate scientific concerns about the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops. The environment campaign group accuses the European Commission of putting the health of the public and the environment at risk from its inconsistent policy by forcing new GM products onto the European market despite these concerns.

A 118 paged document, due for publication tomorrow, has been leaked to Friends of the Earth. (1) The documents, which form part of Europe's defence in the trans-Atlantic trade dispute in the World Trade Organisation are already the basis of a complaint to the European Ombudsman following the Commissions refusal to release them last July. (2)

The documents reveal that the European Commission admits that:

  • The science on GMOs is constantly evolving and that "new risk considerations sometimes arise spontaneously and change the scope of the risk assessment"
  • Concerns about antibiotic resistant genes and secondary effects on beneficial insects are "legitimate scientific concerns"
  • Member states should be able to determine their own level of protection

However, since the trade dispute started in 2003, the European Commission has forced two new GM products onto the market and has also pressurised member states to drop their national bans of various GM foods and crops. The EC depends heavily on the opinions of EC scientific committees, such as the much-criticised European Food Safety Authority, although it admits in the leaked document that "the opinions of the EC scientific committees do not overrule other scientific opinions."

The leaked document also shows the Commission accusing the United States government of being ignorant and that they "deliberately selects what it knows to be a narrow presentation of the issues".

Adrian Bebb, GM campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe said: "These documents reveal that the European Commission is deliberately putting the health of the public and the environment at risk. While it acknowledges behind closed doors that there are legitimate safety concerns over genetically modified foods and crops, it is pushing products onto the European market and trying to force countries to drop their bans. These double standards are dangerous and also damage its credibility with the people they are supposed to protect - the European public."

CONTACT Adrian Bebb: mobile +49 1609 490 1163

Notes 1. The Document is Europe's second submission to the WTO and can be downloaded from: www.foeeurope.org/biteback/download/Second_EU_Submission_to_WTO.pdf
2. http://www.foeeurope.org/biteback/Ombudsman/index.htm