The EU’s Anti-Biotech Protectionist Weapon (Letter to the Editor)


America’s challenge to EU policies toward agricultural and food biotechnology is far more complex and subtle than is conveyed by U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick (“United States v. European Union,” editorial page, May 21). A WTO judgment that the EU’s five-year ban on new approvals of biotech crops is illegal would not be sufficient to remedy what ails international trade in gene-spliced crops and food.

Even the EU’s lifting of its moratorium on approvals would be of only marginal benefit, because it would leave in place an array of unscientific, unnecessary and excessive regulatory requirements. The EU will not relinquish these discriminatory regulations on gene-splicing; they are too effective a protectionist weapon. They discourage plant breeders and farmers in exporting countries, including the U.S., from planting new gene-spliced plant varieties not approved in Europe, because of the possibility that these varieties could “contaminate” exports. In other words, we will continue to permit the most risk-averse and protectionist player in the game to set the rules on international trade.

The most likely outcome of the U.S. filing is the EU will simply ignore a WTO ruling that the EU’s moratorium on new gene-spliced product approvals is illegal. The WTO has no real enforcement power, but relies on member nations to accept its decisions voluntarily. The WTO could, however, authorize the U.S. and the other complainants to establish countervailing import tariffs on goods from the transgressor nations in an amount equal to the potential sales revenue lost by the exporters.

No outcome that permits continued trade restrictions is desirable, but a ruling in favor of the U.S. and its allies would at least send a message to the world that the EU’s arbitrary, scientifically indefensible and protectionist policies are an unacceptable barrier to trade.