Europe’s Continued Hostility to GM Crops Runs Afoul of Science, WTO

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom may have new leaders who bring the promise overall of better trans-Atlantic relations, but when it comes to the politics of global trade, some things never change. This month, the European Union missed yet another deadline for correcting its illegal regulation of gene-spliced, or "genetically modified" (GM), crop varieties, following a World Trade Organization decision in November 2005 that some European countries were breaking international trade rules by prohibiting the import of GM foods and crops.

Although the WTO bluntly scolded the EU for imposing a moratorium on gene-spliced crop approvals from 1998 to 2004, that finding was a foregone conclusion. European politicians, including then-EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, had acknowledged that the moratorium was "an illegal, illogical, and otherwise arbitrary line in the sand."

The WTO also made clear that national bans on certain gene-spliced foods in Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg were blatant violations both of those countries’ treaty obligations and EU rules, but the European Commission has been impotent in persuading its rogue members to conform to EU policies. Not only are most of those national bans still in place but, in October 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy implemented a new moratorium on the commercial cultivation of gene-spliced corn.

The most important victory for the United States and its partners was the WTO’s judgment that the European Commission failed to abide by its own regulations by "undue delaying" of approvals for 25 gene-spliced food products. The culprit here was (and is) the European Commission’s highly politicized, sclerotic, two-stage approval process: Each application first must be cleared for marketing by various scientific panels, and then voted on by politicians, who routinely undo the scientific decisions.

As the WTO pointed out, the relevant EC scientific committees had recommended approval of all 25 product applications. But, for transparently political reasons rather than concerns about consumer health or environmental protection, EU politicians repeatedly refused to sign off on the final approvals.

It is important to recall that these are superior products made with state-of-the art technology that is both more precise and predictable than other techniques for the genetic improvement of plants. The safety and importance of GM technology have been endorsed by dozens of scientific bodies around the world, including the French Academies of Science and Medicine, U.K. Royal Society, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, American Medical Association, and many others.

The good news is that the WTO chastised the European Union for failing to follow its own regulatory rules. The bad news is the absence from the panel report of any condemnation of those rules themselves, in spite of the fact that they are blatantly unscientific and excessive, and are clear violations of the trade treaties enforced by the WTO. Under the various WTO-enforced treaties, member countries are free to enact any level of environmental or health regulations they choose — as long as (1) every such regulation is based on the results of a risk analysis showing that some legitimate risk exists, and (2) the degree of regulation is proportional to that risk.

Every risk analysis performed by countless scientific bodies worldwide has shown that the splicing of new genes into plants, per se, introduces no incremental risks. A 2001 European Commission report summarizing the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning fifteen years concluded that, because GM plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable techniques, they are at least as safe and often safer than their conventional counterparts. In 2003, then-EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs David Byrne acknowledged that the official European Commission position was that currently marketed GM crop varieties posed no greater food safety or environmental threat than the corresponding conventional food varieties.

None of this has translated into more enlightened decisions on either policy or individual products, however (although over the past few years the EU has approved a small, token number of gene-spliced product applications in order to pretend that its regulatory apparatus is now in compliance with the WTO ruling). By requiring extraordinary testing procedures for an admittedly safer technology, the EU’s approach is not only disproportionate but actually manifests an inverse relationship between the degree of risk and amount of regulatory scrutiny. This is both absurd and illegal, but at a "background" briefing in February 2006, an unnamed "EU official" noted that, "[i]t is nevertheless clear, beyond any doubt, that the EU will not have to modify its GMO legislation and authorization procedures."

Because uncertainty is anathema to R&D, few companies are likely to risk the tens of millions of dollars in regulatory costs needed to pursue new GM products in Europe. Even worse, the less developed nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, which once anticipated that agricultural and food biotechnology could provide them a brighter and more self-sufficient future, will continue to be shut out of the important European market by policymakers’ callous, pernicious obstructionism.