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Genetically Modified Food

This paper aims to discuss genetically modified food, with particular discussion of the dispute between the United States and the European Union.  Detail is given in this paper of genetically modified organisms and what they are, and law suits, in particular the United States vs. EC Biotech.  The paper discusses what the issue in the case is, and who has the better case. The paper then gives analysis and opinion of the pro and contra argument, and draws conclusions based upon this information.

Much attention has been paid to genetically modified food and organisms in recent years, and the issue is a controversial one, with equally vociferous supporters and detractors.

Before we can assess the situation accurately, we need to know what genetic modification is, and what the history is behind the United States and European Union dispute.  This will allow increased understanding of both sides.

The terms “Biotechnology” and “genetic modification” are commonly used interchangeably, but actually there is a small but distinct difference between the two: genetic modification is a special set of technologies that alter the genetic makeup of such living organisms as animals, plants, or bacteria. Biotechnology, a more general term, refers to using living organisms or their components,

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such as enzymes, to make products that include wine, cheese, beer, and yogurt. (Human Genome Project Information 2006)

Combining genes from different organisms is known as recombinant DNA technology, and the resulting organism is said to be “genetically modified,” “genetically engineered,” or “transgenic.” Genetically modified products (current or in the pipeline) include medicines and vaccines, foods and food ingredients, feeds, and fibers, amongst others.  (Human Genome Project Information 2006).

There are many benefits to be derived from this procedure – these include enhanced and improved crops, animals, environment and society. But, there are a lot of cons too – safety and ethics concerns being just two of these.  (Human Genome Project Information 2006)

What is the nature of the dispute between American and the European Union, and what are the reasons for this argument?

In the last ten years, American farmers have planted millions of acres of genetically modified varieties of vegetation, including corn, cotton and soybeans. In 2004, approximately 45% of this type of vegetation grown in America was genetically modified. Since many of the corn and soybeans in each year’s harvest become products like lecithin and corn oil, it’s not very surprising that as much as 75% of processed food which retails in America include ingredients which are derived from genetically modified plants (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2005).

However, the Europeans see things in a slightly different manner to that of their American counterparts.  By way of providing some background information on the topic, in Europe, public confidence in all kinds of food has not been at an all time high in recent years, because of issues which are not at all related to genetic modification – including, for example, outbreaks of diseases such as Mad Cow’s Disease, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) to give it its scientific name.

This and other scares have been enough to make European consumers very wary about all foods, including genetically modified foods. To this end, European Union states grow very few genetically modified crops, and very little of this type of food appears to be available in European Union countries (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2005).  In fact the European Commission (which is the executive body of the European Union, which has the right to initiate legislation, (Ecosystem Health 2005)) failed to approve any new genetically modified foods or crops between the years of 1998 and 2004 at all, this in spite of general scientific consensus that no harm was posed by these foods, from either a safety or an environmental point of view.

In 2004, new European Union laws did go into effect, which allowed for the approval of genetically crops, food and feed in Europe.  New requirements and regulations for labeling and traceability were implemented at this stage.  (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2005).

The Commission has since moved through a very lengthy process, and has approved a few of these foodstuffs.  However, in June 2005, a qualified majority of the Council of Ministers would not lift certain bans on genetically modified products which had actually received approval from the Commission. (Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2005).

This inconsistency created new doubts amongst the public – and did nothing to instill public faith in either the Commission or the safety and suitability of the foods.

Since export markets remain a crucial source of income for

American farmers, this opposition from the European Union has proved harmful to agriculture in the United States.  In addition, since one of the biggest fears of the European Union is that of disease, and genetically modified foods may be beneficial in the eradicating of these, this refusal to lift bans seems unfounded, since there is scientific proof that the foodstuffs are not problematic.

A number of law suits, in particular the United States vs. EC Biotech, have resulted from this difference of opinion.

This case is considered to be groundbreaking, since the final ruling would impact on rulings in every subsequent case dealing with the same or similar issues.  A precedent would have been set.

On 13 May 2003, the United States and Canada requested consultations with the European Commission concerning certain measures taken by the EC and its member States affecting imports of agricultural and food imports from the United States and Canada.  With regards to the European Commission-level measures, the US and Canada asserted that the moratorium which had been applied by the EC since October 1998 on the approval of biotech products has restricted imports of agricultural and food products from the US and Canada.

Regarding member State-level measures, the US and Canada asserted that a number of EC member States maintain national marketing and import bans on biotech products even though those products have already been approved by the European Commission for import and marketing in the European Commission. On 14 May 2003, Argentina requested consultations with the EC on the same matter (WTO 2006).  They seemed to have a very compelling and convincing case, with many European Union inconsistencies being pointed out by America, Canada and Argentina.

There were four central questions relevant to the case, which had to be considered and addressed before any final outcome were possible.  These were:  Will the ECO and other ETO members be able to develop and maintain a regulatory system for GMOs that allows for the use of precautionary measures to protect animal / consumer or plant health when there is insufficient scientific evidence to assess the risks of a biotech product presented to Governments for commercialization approval, will the panel agree with the EUROPEAN COMMISSION that some of the regulatory objectives for GMOs fall outside of the competence of WTO agreements and are covered by other international agreements (e.g. the objective to preserve biodiversity against plant species invasion by GM varieties), how will the panel document its use of expert opinion in determining the factual matters that pertain to the main legal issues of the dispute, and how will the panel use previous WTO dispute panel and appellate body rulings on “scientific uncertainty” to justify its ruling

After due consideration of all relevant aspects including the above questions, the World Trade Organization dispute panel on 10 May issued its final ruling on the complaint brought by the US, Canada and Argentina against what they alleged was a European Union moratorium on the approval of new biotech products.

The substance of the report, which remains confidential and was only released to the parties to the dispute, remained unchanged from the 7 February interim ruling, according to one trade diplomat (see Bridges Trade BioRes, 17 February 2006). That ruling said that the EU had indeed applied a general ‘de facto’ moratorium on approvals of biotech products between June 1999 and August 2003 which “resulted in a failure to complete individual procedures without undue delay”, thereby violating the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS).

It also found that that ‘safeguard measures’ in the form of national bans on the marketing and import of EU-approved biotech products in France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece were WTO-incompliant, since the EU’s scientific committee had already judged the products to be safe and the countries had not performed supplementary risk assessments to justify the bans.  (World Conservative Union 2006)

The European Commission was quick to note that the ruling would not affect the European Union’s current biotech regulatory framework. “Nothing in this panel report will compel us to change that framework,” said Peter Power, European Commission spokesman on trade. While most observers agree that the ruling is unlikely to impact the de facto moratorium which effectively ended in 2004, analysts have suggested the ruling’s demand for national bans to be justified by a risk assessment could have impacts on the six EU member states that currently have such bans in place. The report, which could be appealed, is scheduled to be released to the public within six weeks, although sources suggest it may be delayed.  (World Conservative Union 2006)

Conclusion

The stiff opposition to genetically modified foods and organisms has proved problematic, and detrimental, to US farmers.  Opinions and attitudes from, in particular, the Council of Ministers against these products have been detrimental and harmful to the livelihood of American farmers who rely heavily on revenue generated from the export market, when it has actually scientifically been proven that genetically modified products are not unsafe.  It seems that attitudes within the European Union are based more upon possibly unfounded fear than they are upon fact.

I believe cases like that of the United States vs. EC Biotech are not only important, but are also necessary to change attitudes about things that have been scientifically proven not to be detrimental – and which in fact could be beneficial.  However, despite the findings of the WTO panel in this case, it could take a long time to change public opinion about the matter.

References

Ecosystem Health 2005, “Glossary” retrieved 28 May 2006 from the website http://www.med.uwo.ca/ecosystemhealth/education/glossary.htm

 Human Genome Project Information 2006 “What are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods?” retrieved 28 May 2006 http://www.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/elsi/gmfood.shtml

Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology 2005 “Introduction and Summary” retrieved 28 May 2006 from the website http://pewagbiotech.org/resources/issuebriefs/useu.pdf

World Conservative Union 2006 “Final WTO Biotech Panel Report Maintains Verdict Against EU” retrieved 28 May 2006 from the website http://www.ictsd.org/biores/06-05-19/inbrief.htm#2

World Trade Organization 2006 “European Communities – Measures Affecting the Approval and Marketing of Biotech Products” retrieved 28 May 2006 from the website http://www.citizen.org/print_article.cfm?ID=14898

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