BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - A legal challenge by the U.S. to the European Union’s resistance to new biotechnology products looks as if it will be successful, after a Feb. 7 preliminary ruling by the World Trade Organization.

The Geneva-based trade body found that the six-year EU moratorium on approvals of GM crops violates international trade rules. There is no scientific basis for the bans, and the EU must comply with its international trade obligations, said the 1,000-page ruling, which also specifically criticized Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg for retaining their separate national bans on GM crops even after EU approval had been granted. There currently are more than 20 pending applications for EU approval.

The U.S., backed by Argentina and Canada, complained in 2003 that the de facto EU ban - in effect from 1998 to 2004 as a result of national bans by EU member states - was a barrier to free trade.

"The facts on agricultural biotechnology are clear and compelling. It is a safe and beneficial technology that is improving food security and helping to reduce poverty worldwide," said U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, as news of the preliminary ruling leaked out. "We believe agricultural biotechnology products should be provided a timely, transparent and scientific review by the European Union, and that is why Canada, Argentina and the United States brought the case in the first place."

A U.S. trade official said the ban has cost the U.S. "several hundred millions of dollars" a year in agricultural sales to Europe. The WTO ruling is in line with earlier findings from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization that there are no greater risks associated with biotech-derived foods than with conventional plants and foods, according to a statement from the U.S. State Department.

The European biotechnology industry association, EuropaBio, seized on the WTO ruling that EU member states have not properly implemented the EU’s own rules on biotech crops, and that the EU is not approving products in a timely manner. It also insisted that the case was not brought by industry but by governments - contrary to allegations by European opponents of biotech.

EU officials downplayed the significance of the ruling, which has not officially been made public. A full response will be given only when the ruling is finalized, they suggested Feb. 8. But in background briefings, they said that the ruling was principally of only historic interest, because the EU had upgraded its rules since the case was lodged and had resumed the granting of approvals.

Suggestions that biotech firms might now seek compensation for lost trade also were dismissed. A European Commission statement insisted that "every country has the sovereign right to make its own decisions on GMOs in accordance with the values prevailing in its society." It also justified enhanced regulatory oversight, explicitly highlighting failures similar to "those that have been experienced in the U.S. in the recent past when non-approved GMOs such as Starlink GM maize, or Bt 10 GM maize entered the U.S. food chain."

The statement also described the U.S. action at the WTO as "unhelpful" in the search for international agreement on biotechnology regulation.

European opponents of biotechnology, who depict the case as a clash between the business-driven approach of the U.S. and the safety-first approach of the EU, were quick to denounce the WTO ruling. Friends of the Earth Europe, which supports the EU moratorium as an attempt "to protect its people and environment from genetically modified foods and crops," rejects the legitimacy of the WTO, and what campaigners regard as the secrecy of its methods and its focus on business rather than consumer interests. Alexandra Wandel, Friends of the Earth Europe’s Trade Coordinator, said: "Protecting wildlife, farmers and consumers from the threat of genetically modified crops is far more important than enforcing free trade rules." And Greenpeace highlighted the ruling’s own admission that the panel didn’t look at "whether biotech products in general are safe or not."

Even the moderate European consumers organization, BEUC, which declares itself in favor of "a global rule-based trading system," rejected the WTO finding, and suggested the U.S. had abused WTO procedures: "The complaint was brought to provide a way to intimidate third countries, which may wish to introduce their own rules on GMOs," alleged a BEUC statement.

The complaint to the WTO also was supported by Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Mexico, New Zealand and even Norway. All parties will now review the preliminary ruling, and a final WTO decision is expected later in 2006.

Industry Welcome For Biofuel Strategy

EuropaBio, the European biotech industry association, welcomed a new European Union plan to boost biofuels. The strategy, announced Feb. 8, includes support for biotechnology research and development - notably through an industry-led ‘Biofuel Technology Platform,’ and through a focus in the upcoming five-year EU research program on the ‘bio-refinery’ concept and second generation biofuels.

The initiative is directed not only at wider use of biofuels in Europe, but also at the use of biotechnologies used to produce biofuels, especially biodiesel and bioethanol. It will promote research and innovation in developing bioenergy, particularly second-generation biofuels, such as ligno-cellulosic ethanol, Fischer-Tropsch biodiesel and bio-dimethyl ether.

"The European biotechnology industry can and will play an important role in the development of second-generation biofuels. Biotechnology will mean that Europe can move progressively toward the bio-based economy, also in the energy sector," said Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of EuropaBio.

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