GM dispute panel meets in Geneva

Related tags Gm Gm crops Genetically modified organism European union

With the countdown extended, talks continue this week in Geneva
between the US and Brussels to move the entrenched trade dispute on
genetically modified organisms forward.

The World Trade Organisation agreed to set up a GMO dispute panel last year following complaints from the US, and backed by Canada and Argentina, that argued European Union (EU) policy on GMOs violates world trade rules.

Officials from the US and the Commission met today, and yesterday, in Geneva to push discussions forward. Already, the panel has overshot the usual timeline for a report, and is now in extension time.

In 1998 a de facto moratorium was born when Europe stopped approving GM crops for food, feed and cultivation. US farmers quickly branded the ban a barrier to trade and won the support of their government.

But since the launch of the panel; facing the fury of anti-GM campaigners, early last year the European Commission broke the ban, pushing through approval for a GM sweetcorn supplied by Swiss biotech firm Syngenta to enter the food chain. The first approval of a GM foodstuff since 1998.

While consumer groups complained that Brussels was caving into pressure from the US, the main global exporter of GM crops, the Commission argued that tough new rules on traceability and labelling of GM foodstuffs had cleared the way for the re-launch of approvals.

But EU states are divided. The Commission has, to date, asked EU members nine times to vote on authorising a GMO food or feed product. In eight cases, there was no agreement and in the ninth, the deadlock around the table resulted in the vote being postponed.

In a handful of recent years, genetically modified crops have made huge inroads into US agriculture: eighty per cent of America's soy is now grown from genetically modified seed.

But the unpopularity of biotech crops in the minds of the European consumer means the food industry has been slow to embrace the GM food sources on the grounds of simple business sense.

Food manufacturers keen to keep sales afloat will reject any use of genetically modified sources in their formulations, and consequently any need to GM label.

A recent survey polled by the UK's consumer magazine Which? found that consumers in the UK feel even more strongly about GM foods than they did two years ago and more than six out of 10 people (61 per cent) were concerned about the use of GM material in food production - up from 56 per cent in 2002.

Shoppers are not only concerned about GM ingredients in food; 68 per cent want manufacturers to go one step further and source non-GM animal feed, so meat and dairy products would have no links with the GM process.

Ultimately, if the WTO panel repor rules against the EU, it could impose trade sanctions, giving the US the right to impose retaliatory tariffs on EU goods.

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