February 8, 2006

Europe bridles at WTO view on national biotech bans

By Jeremy Smith

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European countries bristled on
Wednesday at a world trade ruling that touches on national
sovereignty over genetically modified (GMO) foods, with some
saying they would do their level best to keep farming GMO-free.

Europe's consumers are well known for their skepticism, if
not hostility, to GMO crops, often dubbed as "Frankenstein
foods." The biotech industry insists their products are
perfectly safe, however, and no different to conventional

Late on Tuesday, a World Trade Organization panel ruled
that various EU countries -- Austria, France, Germany, Greece,
Italy and Luxembourg -- had broken international trade rules by
imposing national bans on marketing and growing specific GMOs.

Some of those countries reacted angrily to the WTO ruling,
saying they would defend their legal right to block EU-approved
products if they wanted, since this was the will of consumers.
EU law dictates that such bans must be scientifically

Austria, one of the EU's staunchest biotech skeptics, has
banned imports of three GMO maize types and is considering a
ban on growing a GMO rapeseed. Government officials say they
will continue to be as restrictive as possible for the time

"The protection of people and the environment have absolute
priority, and the most recent scientific research vindicates
our cautious approach in this matter," said Austrian Health
Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat, responsible for national GMO

"We will exhaust all possibilities to keep Austria's
agriculture GM-free and ensure consumers' safety."

Last June, EU governments rebuffed attempts by the European
Commission to order the five countries to lift their national
GMO bans: the first time that the bloc has managed to agree
anything on biotech policy since 1998.

The Commission didn't think the bans were justified, and
nor did the WTO in its ruling on the case filed by Argentina,
Canada and the United States. It also said the EU's de facto
GMO moratorium between 1999 and 2003 broke world trade rules.


France, home to anti-GMO and free trade firebrand Jose
Bove, has a long-standing consumer opposition to biotech food.
Europe's agricultural powerhouse, France bans two types of GMO
rapeseed but has allowed some small-scale growing of GMO maize.

French consumer and farming groups deplored the WTO ruling,
insisting that a large majority of consumers were firmly
opposed to GMOs and said the EU's temporary approvals ban was

"We think the moratorium was totally justified insofar as
we need to assess GMOs' benefits for consumers as well as their
potential risks," Olivier Arnault, food officer at France's
largest consumer group UMC-Que Choisir, told Reuters.

A poll published in France this week showed that 78 percent
of those questioned would like a temporary ban on GMO products
in order to evaluate their health and environmental impact.

Green groups said consumer resistance to GMOs has increased
in Europe since the three major GMO growers filed their WTO
complaint in 2003. The ruling will not encourage consumers to
buy more GMOs, they say, and maybe make the opposition

"The WTO has bluntly ruled that European safeguards (bans)
should be sacrificed to benefit biotech corporations," said
Adrian Bebb, GMO campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe.

"This will backfire and lead to even greater opposition to
genetically modified food and crops. Consumers worldwide will
not be bullied into eating GM foods."

U.S. officials regretted there was a level of
misinformation in Europe about the benefits of biotech crops
but hoped that the WTO ruling would let the EU open its doors
more to GMO imports.

"It is unfortunate the extent to which certain groups have
decided to demagogue the issue and mischaracterize the quality
... and environmental implications of biotechnology," Deputy
U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab told reporters.

"The proof will be in trade flows and transparency and ease
of approval processes. Time will tell," she said in Brussels.

(Additional reporting by Boris Groendahl in Vienna, Silvia
Aloisi in Rome, William Schomberg in Brussels, Sybille de La
Hamaide and David Evans in Paris)