MEPs Move Towards Lifting of GMO Moratorium

30 June, 2003

Financial Times, July 1 2003 18:50 | Last Updated: July 1 2003 18:50

The European parliament is on Wednesday expected to approve two laws that will allow the European Union to lift its controversial five-year Moratorium on approving genetically modified organisms and could bring to an end a simmering trade row with the US.

Defusing the pending US challenge against the moratorium at the World Trade Organisation could come at the price of sparking a fresh trade dispute to determine whether the EU's legal framework is so restrictive as to constitute a barrier to trade.

The laws set out stringent requirements for labelling GM products, reflecting the view held by the European Commission that the GM issue is one of consumer choice and not of food safety. They also address long-standing demands by EU member states, which have since 1998 refused to approve new GM varieties until a comprehensive system for labelling GM products was in place.

Under the new regime, all products containing more than 0.9 per cent genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will be labelled as GM products. Labelling will also be extended to animal feed, and to all products, from biscuits to frozen pizzas, that contain highly refined soya or maize oil.

They force farmers, manufacturers and distributors to collect and retain detailed information on the presence of GMOs in any product making its way through the commercial chain.

US farmers say the laws will do nothing to open the EU market, even after the ban is lifted, because the elaborate tracing provisions are impossible to meet without a costly effort to segregate all GM crops from non-GM crops.

While Washington strongly opposes the new rules, it has not said how it will respond after the vote by the parliament. A spokesman for the US Trade Representative in Washington said that, while the US favours consumer choice, 'this information should be non-prejudicial in presentation and feasible for producers to provide.' He said the 'proposed new EU labelling rule does not meet this standard.'

Most observers expect Parliament to vote in favour of the two draft laws, though some last-minute amendments could still throw a spanner in the works of the European Commission, which is desperate to show progress in the face of mounting pressure from the US.

A plan to tighten even further the threshold for labelling GM products - from 0.9 to 0.5 per cent - was averted in return for an amendment that will allow EU member states 'to take appropriate measures to avoid the unintended presence of GMOs in other products'.

Some deputies voiced fears that some governments would leap at the chance to further restrict the commercial prospects of the GM industry. David Bowe, a UK Labour MEP, said: 'My fear is that some of them will give the Americans mountains of ammunition [for another WTO case].'