Eat To Live: Europe, WTO in food fight

By Julia Watson
UPI Food Writer

RYE, England, Feb. 10, 2006(UPI) -- This week a preliminary ruling on biotech crops was issued by the World Trade Organization that could prevent national and local governments from setting their own environmental and human health regulations in cases where scientific uncertainty exists.

It's a major blow for those who believe in what is called the Precautionary Principle -- the notion that innovation should be shelved unless all risks can be avoided.

In question is the European Commission's regulatory system, which has delayed the widespread sale of biotech crops until better scientific evidence can prove them not to harm the environment or human health.

Ask Jon Entine who is to blame for the European Union's resistance to biotech foods, and he will tell you it isn't the media campaigns that labeled genetically modified crops and seeds "Frankenfoods." Nor is it any scientific evidence that such foods are dangerous to eat.

According to Entine, an adjunct fellow at the National Research Initiative since 2002 and contributing author and editor of the just published "Let Them Eat Precaution: How Politics Is Undermining the Genetic Revolution in Agriculture" (American Enterprise Institute Press), the whole debacle amounts to no more than a trade dispute between the EU and the United States.

The European Union has refused approval for products made from modern biotechnology for almost 7½ years, "blocking," according to the Foreign Agricultural Service U.S. Mission to the European Union, most U.S. exports of corn and hindering trade in other products.

Since the United States filed a WTO case against the European Union in 2003, challenging its de facto moratorium on new genetically modified crops approval, only a handful of products have been endorsed for sale in Europe.

"The science is clear," Entine told Eat To Live. "Biotech foods are no more dangerous than conventional foods."

Releasing them for sale in the European Union, he believes, would send a crucial message to countries in the developing world that the First World operates by a free-trade system. And this, the EC's so-called moratorium is blocking.

As Eat To Live has reported, the National Research Council recently issued an excoriating rebuke to the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector general for findings that showed the USDA did not require inspections of field-test experiments of GM crops and often didn't even know where these tests were taking place. Nor did it ensure that crops were destroyed as required once the tests had taken place. Independent reviews of the U.S. regulatory system on GM crops have found it similarly at fault.

"Organic farms are not going to feed the poor," Entine states. Biotech farming produces yields, he says, at a rate three to four times higher than conventional farming. It should be presented in the EU as a consumer option.

"The EC has very strict regulations for what it allows in the marketplace and what it puts on labels. If the population doesn't want this, they have got their choice."

The European Union ascribes its chariness to the precautionary principle. EU producers of artisanal foods would argue that the U.S. applies that same principle over the import from Europe into the United States of unpasteurized products such as cured meats, salamis and raw-milk cheeses younger than 60 days.

Steve Suppan, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy research director and author of a briefing paper on the issue, said in an institute news release, "Beyond GE crops, the WTO ruling as reported sets a broad precedent to inhibit the ability of WTO member states to set food safety, public health and environmental health measures where there is scientific uncertainty about the adequacy or quality of data submitted for commercialization approvals."

There are fears that should the ruling remain unchanged before its final publication, it could be used as a legal tool against GE bans passed in EU member states and in several Asian and African WTO member countries.

In 2002 emergency food aid supplies of unmilled grain from the United States were turned back by Zambia on the grounds it could contain genetically modified products which, were they to escape, would contaminate domestic seed. This despite Zambia being one of the countries worst affected by famine in Africa. Zimbabwe and Mozambique also expressed concerned over accepting genetically engineered grain.

Entine says it's important to send a message to developing countries that they can take GM crops. "They should feel free to embrace GM crops and feed their poor.

"The precautionary principle is very limited. You can't use it to throw away all technologies. We have to weigh the risks involved against helping the poor when they are dying."