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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Right to Refuse?

Air Date: Week of January 17, 2003

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The United States is threatening the European Union with a World Trade Organization case over its exclusion of genetically-modified products. Host Steve Curwood talks with Financial Times of London reporter Edward Alden about the dispute.

Transcript

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth’s coverage of emerging science comes from the National Science Foundation.

[MUSIC]

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. It’s shaping up to be a major transatlantic food fight. For several years, virtually no genetically-modified food products have crossed the ocean from the United States to Europe. European Union approvals of new GM products ground to a halt in 1999.

Now the U.S. is threatening to bring a case before the World Trade Organization. The charge? The de facto moratorium in the EU on GM products violates international trade rules.

I’m joined now by Edward Alden, who has been covering the story for the Financial Times of London. Edward, tell me, just what’s behind the U.S. complaint?

ALDEN: Effectively, the European ban makes it impossible for U.S. farmers to sell to Europe most of what they grow now, in terms of major feed and food crops. U.S. farmers are by far the heaviest planters of these crops. About 70 percent of the world’s acreage of genetically-modified crops is planted in the U.S.. And Europe is a major market for the U.S.: it’s the fourth largest market for U.S. farm products. So, it’s a big economic issue for the U.S.. They see the ban as having a very serious commercial impact: hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of dollars in lost income to U.S. farmers.

CURWOOD: The EU has had this de facto moratorium on genetically-modified foods since 1999. So why is the U.S. making this threat now, almost four years later?

ALDEN: It’s an interesting case. The U.S. has been very cautious on this for a long time. There are a number of reasons. I think the biggest reason is that they were worried that the United States would take the case to the World Trade Organization, that it would be tremendously controversial. The U.S. would win on the merits but then the Europeans would refuse to open their market anyway, because European public opinion simply won’t allow that to happen. And so, therefore, it would be a pyrrhic victory. And U.S. farmers understood that; they weren’t pushing the administration particularly hard to bring a case.

I think also there was some sympathy in the European commission for the U.S. argument, and the commission has gradually been trying to nudge France and Italy and the other reluctant member states to allow the ban to be lifted.

All of that was, more or less, the situation up until September/October. What changed was that a couple of African countries, for the first time ever, said that they would refuse to accept shipments of U.S. food aid that contained genetically-modified crops. Zambia, in particular, said we’re in the midst of a famine here but we’re not going to take the shipments because we are worried that these crops will somehow infect our own domestic produce. And that if that happened the Europeans would no longer be willing to accept agricultural imports from Zambia from other African nations, so they refused.

This infuriated the U.S.. The U.S. has charged, in fact, that the Europeans put some of the African countries up to this. Completely changed the politics of it. There was tremendous anger in the U.S. government as a result of these developments in Africa, and I think that has really changed the mood quite profoundly in the U.S..

CURWOOD: So, what happens if this case is in fact brought before the World Trade Organization? What will be the grounds that each side will argue on?

ALDEN: Under WTO rules you are allowed to block imports of products for legitimate health and safety reasons, but you have to be able to demonstrate that there is some plausible threat here, and therefore, there’s a reasonable scientific justification for such a ban. The U.S. will argue there’s simply no scientific evidence that genetically-modified foods are any more dangerous to human health than traditionally-grown crops.

The Europeans…the thrust of the European argument will be we don’t really know what the health impacts and more particularly the environmental impacts of some of these products may be in the long term. The Europeans have a regime in place that they call “the precautionary principle”, which says something to the effect of: if the science is uncertain, then sovereign government should have the right to regulate as they see fit, and that this ban falls within that justification.

So, there’s going to be a very, very interesting battle between two quite different views of the nature of the scientific evidence here and what’s justified based on that scientific evidence, or a lack of. So that will really be the heart of the arguments that the two sides put forward to the WTO.

CURWOOD: Edward Alden is the Washington correspondent for the Financial Times of London. Thanks for filling us in today, Edward.

ALDEN: Thanks very much, Steve.

 

 

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