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Egypt drops backing for U.S. GMO case vs EU-letter

(Thursday, May 29, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Reuters: Egypt has withdrawn its support for the United States in a trade case against the European Union for the bloc's effective ban on new genetically modified (GM) products, according to a letter to a consumer group by Cairo's ambassador to the European Union.

Along with Canada and Argentina, Egypt had backed the United States in its May 13 request to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for action against the EU unless the group of 15 nations resumed authorising applications for new biotech food.

But the Brussels-based European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) said the Egyptian ambassador in Brussels had written to it to say Cairo had dropped its support for the U.S. action.

"...Egypt decided not to become a party to the motion for arbitration launched by the United States within the dispute settlement body of the World Trade Organization," said a text of the letter seen by Reuters.

This decision had come after a thorough review of the EU's stance regarding the production and marketing of GM food and food ingredients, the letter added.

A spokeswoman at the Egyptian embassy in Washington said Ambassador Nabil Fahmy had sought clarification of his government's position on the case and was awaiting a response.

The letter was in response to one BEUC had sent the Egyptians to express disappointment at Cairo's backing for the U.S. action. The U.S. said it had not been informed of a change in the Egyptian position.

"The Egyptian government has given us no information to the contrary to being a co-complainant on the case," said Richard Mills, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office.

The filing of the U.S. case triggers two months of talks between Washington and the EU. If these fail, the United States has said it will formally lodge its complaint and start a WTO investigation that could take about 18 months.

U.S. farmers say the EU's effective ban costs them some $300 million a year in lost sales. More than 70 percent of U.S. soybeans and a third of the corn crop come from biotech seeds.

For its part, the EU says it hopes that new rules will soon be in force on tracing GM goods and labelling products to help consumers choose between items on shop shelves.

The biotech dispute between the two trade giants has rumbled on for some five years. If the row escalates into a formal WTO action, it would cast a long shadow over EU-U.S. trade ties at a time when the two are supposed to be working together to further the Doha round of global trade liberalisation talks.

Consumer and environmental groups have criticised the U.S. threat to sue the European Union via the WTO, questioning the safety of biotech crops and saying Europeans had the right to decide for themselves whether to accept them.

"We're delighted that Egypt has withdrawn from this US. attempt to force GM food and crops into Europe," said Geert Ritsema, campaigner for Friends of the Earth.

"Countries should be allowed to choose what they eat and what they grow in their fields. The United States should withdraw its WTO challenge, and stop trying to bully Europe over GMOs," he said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington, D.C.)