Three Cheers for WTO Decision on Biotech Food

What do an <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Iowa corn grower, a Thai rice farmer, and a Dutch grocery shopper have in common?  You may think the answer is “not very much.”  If you do, think again.  Despite being separated by thousands of miles and a deep cultural gulf, all three should be cheering today’s World Trade Organization ruling against European biotechnology restrictions. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


On February 7, the WTO is expected to release its findings in a long-running dispute between the United States, Canada, and Argentina over European regulation of bioengineered, or “Genetically Modified,” food.  Today’s decision confirms that several of Europe’s biotechnology rules have no scientific basis and therefore unfairly restrict imports from the rest of the world.


Since 1998, European shoppers have been forbidden access to less expensive, high quality foods that are grown on every other continent and eaten daily by millions of people. The EU has refused even to consider approving many new bioengineered products, despite the fact that each has been judged safe by its own scientific committees.


It’s bad enough that European consumers have been stripped of their freedom to choose, but the impacts extend far beyond Europe’s borders. Commodity shipments and packaged foods have been turned away from the European market merely for containing bioengineered ingredients. U.S. farmers alone have lost an estimated $300 million worth of grain exports every year for half a decade.


That could soon change, but the biggest beneficiaries will be poor farmers in less developed countries. Many of the same bioengineered crops grown throughout the United Stares are already helping poor farmers in South Africa, India, China, and the Philippines combat often-voracious insects while reducing pesticide use or eliminating it altogether. Sadly, though, the benefits of biotechnology have not spread widely through the developing world in large part due to the European market restrictions.


For example, European importers have warned Thai government officials against authorizing bioengineered rice varieties lest the country forfeit that important market for its $2.5 billion export crop. Uganda has stopped research on bioengineered bananas and postponed their introduction indefinitely.  Dozens of developing world governments have awaited the outcome of this case to see whether their farmers would be allowed to share in the benefits of the biotechnology revolution.


For years, the European governments have rationalized their blatantly anti-consumer policies as promoting consumer choice. But, refusing to approve any bioengineered foods hardly counts as promoting consumer freedom.


Now, EU policymakers will be forced to confront the fact that their groundless biotechnology restrictions flaunt the scientific consensus that food biotechnology is a safe and effective way to increase yields, lower costs, and protect the environment. A decision by the 140-member World Trade Organization will send an important message from the international community that it’s time for the EU’s groundless and genuinely harmful biotechnology restrictions to go.