WTO ruling on genetically engineered crops would override international, national and local protections
Ruling favors U.S. biotech companies over precautionary regulation
March 6, 2006 -- According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a preliminary ruling issued by a World Trade Organization (WTO)’s dispute resolution panel would be a major step back for the democratic rights of national and local governments to set their own environmental and human health regulations when there is scientific uncertainty.
The ruling concerns a U.S., Canadian and Argentine government challenge of a European Commission (EC) regulatory system that delayed the commercialization of genetically engineered (GE) crops until further scientific evidence of their environmental and health safety was available. The EC system has approved GE crops for commercialization since the dispute was filed in 2003.
If the lengthy ruling remains unchanged before its final publication, it will likely be used as a legal tool against GE bans passed in European Union member states, in several Asian and African WTO member countries, and even in a few U.S. counties.
The reported WTO ruling at least indirectly challenges the authority of the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which authorizes its member countries to take a precautionary approach to regulating GE crops when there is scientific uncertainty. While the dispute plaintiffs are not among the Protocol’s 131 member states, dozens of WTO members are, so the ruling could conflict with their Protocol commitments, including those implemented at a national and local level.
The WTO ruling comes on the heels of a scathing U.S. Department of Agriculture Inspector General report which found that the USDA did not require inspections of field tests of experimental GE crops, didn’t assure that crops were destroyed after the tests were finished, and often didn't even know where the tests were being conducted. Nearly every independent review of the U.S. regulatory system regarding GE crops has found significant deficiencies. The National Research Council published critical reviews of the U.S. regulatory process in 2000, 2002 and 2004. The flaws of the U.S. regulatory system and the unknown risks of GE crops are outlined in an amicus brief filed in the WTO case by the Center for International Environmental Law, Friends of the Earth - U.S., Defenders of Wildlife, IATP, and the Organic Consumers Association. It is available at the Trade Observatory website.
It is unlikely the case will increase U.S. food sales to Europe. Europe still requires labeling of GE crops, and there is overwhelming consumer sentiment for GE-free foods there. U.S. wheat growers, recognizing that European and Asian consumers do not want GE crops, successfully blocked the approval of GE wheat in the U.S. in 2004. However, there is a real danger that the ruling could be used to force sales of GE products in developing countries, who have less leverage to stand up to political pressure from the United States government.