A ruling expected next month by the World Trade Organisation in the transatlantic dispute over genetically modified products is likely to have more political resonance than actual impact on European food and agriculture sectors, according to officials and experts.
The European Union stopped approving new types of GM products in 1998 in response to concerns about the safety of GMOs from European consumer organisations and environmental lobby groups. But the move angered biotechnology companies and some of the EU’s main trading partners, whose farmers export GM products.
The US eventually complained to the WTO, with the backing of Canada and Argentina, arguing that the European moratorium was an unjustifiable obstacle to trade.
In an effort to defuse the transatlantic dispute and reduce mistrust among European consumers, the EU then took steps to improve its regulatory framework for GMOs, notably by introducing stricter rules to guarantee the traceability and labelling of GM products.
More significantly, the EU finally approved in May 2004 a modified sweetcorn made by Syngenta, a decision that was followed by a handful of other GM approvals. This has left EU officials insisting that the US-led complaint against a moratorium has become obsolete.
An interim ruling from the WTO arbitration panel was due this week, but has been delayed for a third time and is now expected next month.
On Wednesday, the European Commission argued that, whatever the WTO ruling, it would not force further adjustments to EU approval procedures and regulations.
It said: “Only products recognised as safe will be allowed and the WTO report will not influence the decision-making process in the EU. Any idea that there is going to be a flood of GMOs is simply not the case.”
However, the EU approval system has remained highly divisive, triggering a profound split among the 25 member states of the EU. The Commission has also struggled to challenge tighter national restrictions in countries such as Austria and Greece that are die-hard opponents of GMOs, another issue addressed in the US-led complaint to the WTO.
Helen Holder, GMO campaign co-ordinator at Friends of the Earth Europe, argued that one of the most important consequences of a WTO ruling against the EU could be that it would increase public antagonism towards the Geneva trade body, given that most European consumers remain averse to GM food.
■Brussels on Wednesday said it would grant some US and other non-European Union food products, such as Idaho potatoes, the same level of protection as European traditional foodstuffs, in compliance with a ruling by the WTO.