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TRADE: U.S. WTO Dispute Could Bend Poor Nations to GMOs – Groups

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, May 14 2003 (IPS) - The U.S. decision to confront a European Union (EU) de facto ban on genetically modified (GM) food might knock down the world’s main resistance to the controversial process and scare developing countries into opening their doors to GM crops, say analysts here.

After five years of unsuccessful negotiations with the EU over its delay on approving genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Bush administration said Tuesday it was taking its case to the World Trade Organization (WTO) to get the European block to relax its restrictions.

International consumer groups decried the decision, saying it could hurt European consumers and open up markets in dozens of developing nations, whose resistance to GMOs has so far largely hinged on European backing.

In its complaint, Washington argues that barring development of GM foods in the wealthy economic block is an illegal trade barrier under WTO rules.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said Tuesday that the "EU’s persistent resistance" was actually impeding "global use of a technology that could be of great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world".

The EU denies that it has enacted a moratorium and says it simply needs more time to develop systems for tracing and labelling GM foods and feed.

U.S. biotech corporations, the Bush administration and conservative think tanks here have been arguing that GMO products are safe for human consumption and that they could alleviate hunger in poor and developing nations.

”In developing countries, the deployment of plant biotechnology can spell the difference between life and death and between health and disease for hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest people,” said Ronald Bailey, author of a pro-GMOs study at the conservative Washington-based Cato Institute.

There are one billion chronically poor and hungry people in the world, and low crop yields and costly production technologies are partly to blame. The use of plant biotechnology in many of those nations has been allegedly been slowed because of EU resistance to GMOs.

Last year, Africa’s famine-stricken nations of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique turned down shipments of U.S. GMO aid because of health and environmental concerns, despite enormous pressure and loud propaganda campaigns from Washington.

The countries were also worried that they could lose their export markets in the EU if their crops were contaminated by GMOs.

Consumer groups, charities and development organisations accuse the biotech industry and the Bush administration of camouflaging their own financial self-interest by pretending to argue for the welfare of the world’s hungry.

"The Bush administration is catering to the interests of major biotech corporations rather than human health," said Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, a leading voice in the battle against GMOs.

U.S. biotechnology giants like Monsanto and Aventis and big agricultural groups such as the National Corn Growers Association strenuously lobbied the administration to bring a formal WTO case challenging the EU’s regulatory system for GMO products.

U.S. industry loses some 300 million dollars a year of possible GMO exports to the EU, but the potential of exports to huge world markets, like India, is far greater.

The United States is the largest grower of biotech crops in the world, with 96.3 million acres currently under cultivation.

Biotech crops represent about 75 percent of soy production, 34 percent of corn and 71 percent of cotton, while the worldwide rates are 45 percent for soy, 11 percent for corn and 20 percent for cotton.

Consumers groups that have been following the issue for years say that even if the WTO rules in favour of Washington, European consumers, farmers and producers have been educated enough to never want to use GM products.

"The European food industry will simply refuse to stock those products," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the U.S.-based Organic Consumers Association.

"It’ll be a situation where in theory the WTO can enforce this. But in practice the WTO would be on shaky grounds. There is no way in hell that they can force the European consumers, supermarkets or farmers to stock those GMO tainted crops."

Cummins says the real aim of the United States is to frighten poor developing nations into complying and opening their markets for the controversial products.

"It’s clear that the Europeans will not back down," he said. "They (the U.S.) are trying to scare smaller countries that are no match with the U.S."

Already Washington has lined up a dozen, mostly client countries, to sign on to the WTO complaint. These include Egypt, a large African country of 71.5 people run by an undemocratic and authoritarian regime, but also Canada, another agricultural exporter.

The United States also has a record of using food aid to force GM crops "down peoples’ throats", creating firestorms of resistance in receiving nations that receive GM products masked as food relief, said Cummins.

Washington is also introducing GMOs to poor nations via training courses at its Agriculture Department, where hundreds of agriculture officials from the developing world are instructed in the WTO rules on GM products and, along the way, about the benefits of biotechnology.

U.S. industry groups have also been using ”technical assistance” to fund initiatives that promote "science-based and transparent biotechnology regulations" in lucrative markets like China, with the aim of preventing the emergence of biotechnology regulations similar to those in the EU.

The U.S. industry was alarmed in March 2002 when China introduced bio safety rules that demanded strict labelling, extensive documentation and government approval for food shipments. The new rules immediately froze all soybean shipments from Midwestern U.S. states.

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