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WTO Ruling on GMOs Threatens EU Precautionary Approach

Press contact Ben Lilliston (612) 870-3416 or

 WTO Biotech Ruling Threatens Precautionary Approach Decision Challenges Europe's Biotech Regulations - More Litigation Likely

Minneapolis/Geneva differed from a confidential interim conclusion in February in that for the first time the panel left open the possibility that parts of the European Union's new regulatory regime for agricultural biotechnology might violate WTO rules, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

In an appendix (K) to the final ruling, the panel expressed "grave concern" that publication of the confidential interim ruling earlier this year had led to a misinterpretation of its findings, particularly concerning the right of WTO members to take a precautionary approach to the regulation of food safety and animal health when scientific evidence to demonstrate product safety was inadequate or inconclusive.

"A comparison of the interim and final ruling conclusions show that the United States, Canada and Argentina successfully pressured the panel to change its ruling and expose the European Union to further WTO biotech litigation," said Steve Suppan, a senior policy analyst at IATP and author of a backgrounder on the biotech case. "It's most regrettable that the precautionary approach to regulation will remain under threat of further litigation."

The U.S., Argentina and Canada brought the case against the European Commission's regulatory system for genetically engineered crops a moratorium on new approvals of GE crops. The EC, which has since modified its regulatory system and removed the moratorium, argued that many of the issues in the case are no longer relevant.

The EC defended its regulatory system before the WTO by referring to the UN's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a ratified UN treaty that authorizes signatories to take a precautionary approach to regulating GE corps when there is scientific uncertainty. Over 130 countries around the world have signed onto the Biosafety Protocol, but the U.S. is not one of them. The WTO panel ruled that because the U.S. has not signed onto the Biosafety Protocol, the EC could not use a Protocol based defense.

"The panel's legal reasoning really undercuts the Biosafety Protocol," said Suppan. "Many countries who are signatories to the Protocol, particularly poor countries, have not set up their regulatory framework for genetically engineered crops. This ruling is a warning to Protocol members that if they regulate biotech products according to their Protocol commitments, a Protocol based defense of those regulations cannot prevail at the WTO if the plaintiffs are not Protocol members."

Europe utilizes what is known as the precautionary principle to regulate not only GE crops, but also toxic chemicals as part of their newly passed REACH system. The WTO panel ruled that the precautionary principle is too controversial and unsettled in international public law to serve as a basis for panel rulings.

The ruling will have little immediate effect on trade between the U.S. and Europe. Europe's new system still requires that GE foods and crops be labeled. European consumers are overwhelmingly opposed to GE crops, so GE food products are not on supermarket shelves. IATP supports labeling of approved GE foods and moratoria against commercialization of GE crops such as wheat that have been rejected by farmers, food processors and consumers.

IATP has written a backgrounder and analysis of the preliminary ruling, available at:

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works globally to promote resilient family farms, communities and ecosystems through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.