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GMO import ban caught in crossfire

(Wednesday, Sept. 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- New Scientist: From tomorrow, countries will have a right under international law to ban imports of food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that they think could be unsafe. Or maybe not.

The UN's Biosafety Protocol - which allows bans where governments fear imported GMOs in food may have an "adverse effect" on biological diversity or human health - comes into force on Thursday. But as it does, the right to impose bans is being attacked by a US action launched in August against the European Union.

The US claims a five-year-old European ban on food containing GMOs is a breach of another set of international rules - the World Trade Organization's requirements for free trade.

The dispute, which will be decided by the WTO's dispute panel, is shaping up to be a face-off between the competing goals of free trade and safeguarding the environment. Friends of the Earth campaigns director Liana Staples condemns the US action: "It is just the latest Bush government-led attempt to bulldoze over other countries' rights to protect their people and the environment."

But US trade representative Robert Zoellick says the EU ban is "unsupported even by the EU's own scientific studies". The dispute promises to be a major talking point at the WTO meeting starting today in Cancun, Mexico.

Collision course

The Biosafety Protocol, agreed between most of the world's governments in 2000, formed an addition to the 1992 Biodiversity Convention. It seemed to legitimise a five-year-old EU ban on imports of GM foods from the US and elsewhere.

But the US never signed the convention, and so is not a party to the protocol. It called the EU ban an illegal infringement of trade and began the WTO action. In so doing, say environmentalists, it is setting the two treaties on a collision course.

The EU says the US complaint is now irrelevant. In August, EU ministers set new rules that should allow imports of products containing GM material, provided they are properly labelled and the sources of the GMOs are fully traceable. But the US disagrees, saying that in practice the rules would be impossible to meet.

The controversy will be further inflamed on Thursday when Tewolde Egziabher, one of the architects of the Biosafety Protocol, marks its coming into force by speaking at the upper house of the British parliament.

Egziabher, director of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority, will argue that the US action is designed to intimidate African countries. They want to use the protocol to set up their own systems for regulating imports of GM food, including US food aid.

Before leaving Addis Ababa, Egziabher said: "We resent the way that the image of the hungry in developing countries has been used to force a style of agriculture that will only exacerbate problems of hunger and poverty."

And he added that Ethiopia, as a centre for the natural genetic diversity of the world's grain crops, has special reason to oppose "the hasty introduction of GM crops". His fear is that GMOs might contaminate the country's wild grains, from which early food crops were bred.

Source: http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99994147