U.S. takes food dispute to the WTO

Elizabeth Becker
The International Herald Tribune

WASHINGTON The Bush administration filed a suit Tuesday at the World Trade Organization to force Europe to lift its moratorium on genetically modified food, a move that was threatened this year but postponed during the debate over the war in Iraq.
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The suit was expected to further increase trans-Atlantic trade tensions after several recent rulings against the United States in cases brought by European Union at the WTO over U.S. steel tariffs and tax shelters for American overseas corporations.
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The administration was backed by the House speaker, J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois, and other Republican and Democratic lawmakers who have been pushing the lawsuit for months. U.S. farmers have led the drive for the complaint, saying they have invested in the expensive technology to raise genetically modified crops only to see one of the biggest markets, Europe, closed to their products.
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In announcing the case, the U.S. trade representative, Robert Zoellick, said the administration was not trying to counter WTO decisions in favor of the European Union.
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"I'm absolutely denying that," he said.
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He said that the administration had simply run out of patience waiting for the European Union to lift what he called a five-year-old moratorium that blocked several hundred million dollars' worth of U.S. exports and that the moratorium was spreading fears in developing countries that could most benefit from the increased yield of genetically modified crops.
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"In developing countries, these crops can spell the difference between life and death," Zoellick said. "The human cost of rejecting this new technology is enormous."
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European officials said that they were dumbfounded by the suit and that there is no moratorium on genetically modified food.
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"The U.S. claims that there is a so-called moratorium, but the fact is that the EU has authorized GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications," the European commissioner for trade, Pascal Lamy, said.
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"So what is the real U.S. motive in bringing a case?" Lamy asked.
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At the center of the debate, if not the suit, is a growing disagreement between the United States and Europe over what steps are necessary to protect public health and the environment.
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European consumers are far more wary of genetically modified food than Americans and many object to what they consider aggressive U.S. promotion of the foods.
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The European Union is demanding that genetically modified food be labeled as such. They also want to be able to trace the origins of the food back to the producer. Both measures are in place in Europe for a variety of food products.
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The United States opposes such labels and tracing mechanisms, saying they are too costly and impractical. The administration made similar arguments last week against a European proposal to test industrial chemicals before they are put on the market as a precaution to protect public health and the environment.
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Margot Wallstrom, the European commissioner for the environment, said the European legislature would complete its rules requiring labeling and methods for tracing food and animal feed that is genetically modified.
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"This U.S. move is unhelpful," she said. "It can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult."
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The U.S. secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman said that the case was brought to protect U.S. farmers and ranchers who want to expand the market for genetically modified crops.
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"With this case, we are fighting for the interests of American agriculture," Veneman said. "This case is about playing by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed to comply with its WTO obligations."
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Joining the United States in the complaint are Argentina, Canada and Egypt, with nine other countries expressing support as third parties without direct commercial interest. They are Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay. Many of the countries are negotiating free-trade agreements with the United States.
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Chile is waiting for the administration to sign off on its accord after a delay driven in part by disappointment that Chile refused to side with the United States on Iraq at the United Nations.
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Zoellick promised European officials last week that trade would bring the allies together after the arguments over Iraq, not further apart.
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But trade is becoming divisive especially since the end of the war in Iraq. Countries like Chile fear that trade will be used to punish those nations that failed to support the United States.
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European officials lashed back at the Bush administration Tuesday, refusing to be blamed for blocking food aid to Iraq and reminding the United States that it had refused to join 100 other countries and sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety that established rules for exporters and importers of genetically modified crops.
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Several African farmers and scientists joined Zoellick and Veneman in praising the United States for pushing the Europeans to fully open their markets to genetically modified crops.
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"We believe it is better to give a person food to eat today than wait 10 years to be sure it is safe," said Darin Makinde, dean of the school of agriculture at the University of Venda in South Africa.
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"Two elephants are fighting," Makinde said, "the United States and Europe, and it is Africa that is suffering."
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The New York Times