International Trade Reporter
Volume 19 Number 2 Thursday, January 10, 2002
Page 51 ISSN 1523-2816
EU Leaders' Summit in March May Decide On Lifting of GMO Moratorium, Officials Say
A decision to lift the European Union's moratorium on new approvals of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could be made at the EU's next leaders' summit, currently scheduled for March 15-16 in Barcelona, Spain, U.S. and EU officials said Jan. 8.
Alan Larson, undersecretary of state for economic, business, and agricultural affairs, said in remarks to the Washington International Trade Association that many of his European trade counterparts "have focused on the March Barcelona summit as their target for getting this turned around, so it'll be real interesting to see if they can do that."
The European Commission has not approved any new GMOs for sale in the EU since 1998. Many member states insist that a proposed rule for the traceability and labeling of GMOs be in place before the approval process resumes. It could take up to two years for the new rule to be approved and implemented by the EU.
The traceability and labeling proposal would require all products produced with GMOs and their derivatives to be approved by EU authorities for sale in EU markets, and to be labeled as genetically-modified products; requires all firms in a distribution and supply chain to keep records of all biotechnology products, including food, pharmaceuticals, and animal feed; and requires that the "accidental" presence of GMO materials amount to less than 1 percent of
A WTO Challenge?
During a Dec. 12 visit to Brussels, Larson said that the United States' "patience is wearing out" regarding the EU's moratorium, and a U.S. official said at the time that pressure for the U.S. to mount a World Trade Organization case was growing.
However, when asked about the possibility of a WTO challenge Jan. 8, Larson would say only that "We have all of our options open," adding that "we haven't had a full review of this issue for awhile."
Larson also called on the Commission to take EU member states opposed to lifting the de facto ban to the European Court of Justice. "Whatever tactic we ultimately decide to employ, it probably will need to have the effect of ensuring that this is an issue that presidents, prime ministers, and chancellors understand is very important," he continued. "One way or the other, it has to be elevated higher in the consciousness of the top political leadership in the EU."
Meanwhile, a European Commission official, who asked not to be identified, said that while a court case was possible, the Commission hoped to resolve the issue at the Barcelona summit. The Commission is the EU's executive body.
The Barcelona Summit
The official told reporters after Larson's speech that David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer affairs, and Margot Wallstrom, commissioner for the environment, "intend to put the issue of the resumption of [GMO] approvals on the agenda [in order to] ... have the decision at the highest level." But he said that he was not sure if the agenda for the Barcelona summit was set.
When asked if he was hopeful that the moratorium would be ended at the Barcelona summit, the official said "yes." If a decision was not made, "we have other options, and going to court is one of the options, though it's very difficult, politically speaking," he said.
The official also noted that the Commission could lift the moratorium on its own, though it has had that option for some time and has been reluctant to do so. The Commission had previously hoped that the proposal of the traceability and labeling rules in July would convince enough member states to lift the ban, but an Oct. 29 Council of Environmental Ministers failed in that regard.
Under questioning, Larson said that European Commission officials were planning to emphasize the "competitiveness issue," a reference to biotech companies that are leaving Europe due to the GMO approval moratorium, at the Barcelona summit, rather than focusing solely on environmental and food safety issues.
"They are hopeful that by focusing on this, they could create a somewhat different political environment for action," he said. The European Commission official confirmed Larson's statements, saying that competitiveness concerns would be "the framework" for how the GMO
moratorium would be addressed at the Barcelona summit.
A Precedent for a Court Case
Meanwhile, Larson reiterated the United States's impatience with the EU's ban, and said that Europe's reluctance to approve new biotech agricultural products was casting a "pall" over the otherwise promising field of biotech agriculture.
In urging the European Commission to pursue a court case, Larson cited last year's dispute between France and the United Kingdom over British beef. When France banned the import of British beef due to mad cow concerns, Larson noted that the Commission took France to the European Court of Justice and won.
"I'd like to see the European Union take the member states to court on this whole issue of biotech approvals," Larson said. "It just seems to me that there's only so long that you can go without enforcing the rules," he added, and referred to the "claims" by EU governments that there are significant consumer concerns over GMOs in Europe as a "smokescreen."
"Sometimes if there's behavior that's both inappropriate and illegal you've got to confront it, that's the only way you're going to change it," he said.
Approvals Possible, with Labeling
The European official told reporters that should the de facto ban be lifted after the Barcelona summit in March, two or three GMOs could probably be approved by the end of the year.
However, he said that the approvals would probably include requirements that the individual GMOs meet the Commission's traceability and labeling requirements, which have been very controversial in the United States.
The EU considers the traceability and labeling requirements a matter of providing consumer choice, while the United States sees them as discriminatory. Larson referred to the proposed rules as "onerous," and argued that they were unlikely to provide the consumer choice the EU claimed, based on what he said the U.S. government has been told by European food retailers.
According to grocers in the EU, Larson said that either food containing GMOs would not be sold in stores, in order to avoid the labeling requirements, or that all foods would have labels so the stores could protect themselves from liability, given that many foods may contain a small amount of GMOs.
By Chris Rugaber
Copyright © 2002 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington D.C.