BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy publicly regretted as "unnecessary litigation" the move Monday by Argentina, Canada and the U.S. on EU rules on marketing genetically modified organisms. And Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström warned that "this request will muddy the waters of the debate in Europe" on GMOs.

The three countries have formally requested the World Trade Organization set up a disputes settlement panel to rule on their allegation that the EU approach to GMOs constitutes an illegitimate barrier to international trade.

Lamy said: "We have been in what we found a rather constructive dialogue with Argentina, Canada and the U.S. on this issue. We regret this move."

The EU had been holding consultations with all three countries since June, in a bid to head off full legal action at the WTO. It had supplied further details on its regulatory framework and on the situation of all pending GMO applications for EU authorization, in the hope, it said, that "any misunderstanding could be dispelled."

The U.S. quickly dismissed the consultations as a failure, and made clear it would request a panel shortly. But after further exchanges of information with Canada and Argentina, the EU said it had "the understanding that these two countries were interested in pursuing the consultations," and expressed surprise that they had joined the U.S. in demanding a panel. "The EU remains convinced that an open dialogue in a constructive spirit would lead to a positive solution," Lamy said Monday.

But the Commission continued to maintain that it is in the right. "The EU's regulatory system for GMOs is clear, transparent, reasonable and nondiscriminatory. We are confident that the WTO will confirm that the EU fully respects its obligations," Lamy said.

And Wallström insisted: "The EU stance on GMOs is in line with WTO rules." David Byrne, European commissioner for health and consumer protection, added, "It is the lack of consumer demand for GM products that accounts for the low sales of GMOs in the EU market."

The European Union framework for approving and marketing GMOs and GM foods in Europe includes prior scientific assessment of the impact on human, animal and plant health and the environment. Applications must go to all of the 15 EU member states, and if any raises objections, an opinion is required from a specialized scientific committee before a decision is made. But since October 1998, no new GMOs have been authorized for release into the environment under the EU's regulatory regime.

The Commission said Monday, "A number of new applications for marketing of GMOs are at an advanced stage of examination and may therefore be granted over the coming months in line with EU legislation."