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The United States will have to wait until next year to see its fight with
the European Union over biotech foods resolved, as the World Trade
Organization agreed to an EU request to bring scientists into the debate,
officials said, August 2004 by Paul Geitner .
A WTO panel in Geneva decided Aug. 20 to allow expert testimony before
deciding on the complaint filed last year by the United States, Canada and
Argentina over the EU's moratorium on approving genetically modified foods
for sale in Europe.
That means the panel's report, initially expected before the end of this
year, now will be delayed until late March, according to WTO documents.
The United States had argued that scientific advice was not needed because
the case revolved around legal issues, while the EU has sought to move the
debate from trade rules to health and environmental protection.
A U.S. official said Washington accepted the panel's decision and would be
"participating in the process" of framing questions to be debated. There was
no immediate EU comment.
The EU ended its six-year moratorium last May when it allowed onto the
market a modified strain of sweet corn, grown mainly in the United States.
Another herbicide-resistant corn was approved for animal feed last month. In
both cases, the decision was made by the EU's executive commission after
ministers from the 25 member governments deadlocked on the applications.
The political stalemate highlights continuing unease in Europe over biotech
foods, despite the introduction last spring of what are considered the
world's most stringent labeling requirements.
The United States has said it will continue with its WTO case until it sees
a "predictable, ongoing process" based on science, not politics. It also
opposes the EU's strict labeling, saying it unnecessarily scares away
Biotech crops have been widely grown in the United States for years,
including corn and soybeans genetically modified to resist insects or
disease. U.S. farm exporters contend the ban has stopped about $300 million
in annual sales of bioengineered corn to Europe.
U.S. officials have expressed concerns that Europe's anti-biotech sentiment
is spreading to developing countries as well, exacerbating global hunger.
WTO spokesman Peter Ungphakorn in Geneva said it was not unusual for the
trade organization to seek scientific advice. Scientists have been called in
to assist panels dealing with disputes over asbestos and animal and plant
An anti-biotech group, Friends of the Earth Europe, called the WTO panel's
decision a "first round" victory for the EU, but attacked the "secretive and
undemocratic" WTO for getting involved at all.
"Every country should have the right to put public safety before the
economic might of the biotechnology industry," said Adrian Bebb, spokesman
for the group.
Contributing: Jonathan Fowler in Geneva.
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