|By JANE HOUIN
GENEVA, Switzerland — Advocacy groups are scrambling in the wake of the World Trade Organization’s preliminary ruling on Feb. 7 that the European ban of genetically modified foods was without scientific merit.
The United States, Argentina and Canada had brought the issue to the WTO in 2003, claiming that the moratorium on engineered crops and food by the European Union violates trade rules and undermines the development and use of biotechnology - and the WTO agreed. Along with the other countries involved in the suit, the United States argued that genetically modified (GM) foods are as safe to both health and the environment as other traditional crops.
“This sends a message to Europe and other countries who might buy genetically modified crops and grains that the science behind these crops is sound,” said Jon Entine, adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute’s National Research Initiative, scholar in residence at Miami University in Ohio and contributing author and editor of Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture. “There is no evidence that genetically modified crops are less healthy or safe than traditional crops.”
Prior to the decision being handed down, Greenpeace labeled the WTO as unqualified to deal with complex and scientific issues, while other organizations such as Friends of the Earth Europe and the U.S.-based Consumers Union followed suite with statements of their own.
Since the preliminary verdict, even more activists have stepped up their activities, flooding the Internet with hysteria-grams trying to recast the stunning victory for common sense and careful science into a morality play, according to Entine.
Because this issue is such a political hot potato, the 1,000-page ruling has been a long time in the making; it was first promised 15 months ago, Entine said, but it took even longer because they wanted to make sure “all the ‘i’s were dotted and the ‘t’s were crossed” on this issue. Now that the preliminary ruling has been released, it will be circulated among WTO members, who can then recommend changes. But, Entine predicts the ruling will probably be approved with minimal changes.
If the ruling is upheld, Europe will not be forced to alter its regulations or labeling requirements, much less “force” consumers to buy and eat food they do not want. It will require the EU to observe its own regulatory policies, using sound science to evaluate new products. But of course, Europe may elect to follow the same path they’ve taken with genetically modified corn imports: Europe pays millions of dollars in fines each year because they refuse to follow WTO policy and rulings.
Because the suit was filed in 2003, it only addresses issue prior to the filing, and Europe could claim that problems and violations identified in the report have since been addressed and corrected. Although the EU’s ban on GM crops was officially lifted in 2004, the moratorium has been left in place as a result of squabbling among member states, with 16 products currently stuck in committees.
Entine claims some European countries have been exploiting the controversy to protect their farmers and keep prices high regardless of what public policy and international agreements demand.
In fact, earlier this month, The Greek agricultural minister announced Greece would defy EU regulations and broaden its unauthorized ban on GM maize seeds.
Although the first generation of GM crops - soybeans, wheat, cotton and canola - benefited commodity crop farmers, Entine said the second phase of the biotech revolution that we are now in is instead addressed malnutrition and provides help to smaller farmers.
A prime example of these nutrition-enhanced “farmacuetical” crops is “golden rice,” which has the potential to help tens of millions of malnourished children who go blind or die each year from Vitamin A deficiencies.
And on the horizon are even more solutions: medicines made through the combination of basic agricultural methods and advanced biotechnology, said Entine, such as potatoes that serve as edible vaccines against diarrhea, a leading cause of death in the developing world.
“The real losers are the children of the world,” Entine said. “The real harm is to the developing world, who has been denied the opportunity to buy crops that are safer to grow than conventional crops. Many African countries are too intimidated to buy or even accept donations of genetically modified crops for fear of offending their biggest trading partners in Europe”
Despite the potential benefits these GM crops could provide, protestors cite the “precautionary principle” that innovation should be put on hold until all risk can be avoided. Entine calls the “better safe than sorry” slogans scientifically simplistic.
There have been no documented health problems linked to GM crops and no evidence the genetic modification poses greater risks than crossbreeding and gene splicing.
Typically, a final ruling can be expected in 3-4 months following the release of the preliminary ruling, but it may take longer than that on this issue, said Entine, because of the political nature of the issue.