Is Europe’s opposition to importing GMOs violating trade agreements?


Almost from the moment genetically engineered crops and non-medical products entered the worldwide marketplace, many European nations opposed cultivating them or importing some GMO foods, although Europe is one of the largest importers of GMO grain as animal feed. Biotechnology innovations in agriculture have been targeted, and have been the focus of emerging non-tariff trade barriers. These restrictions to world trade, the U.S. and other agriculture groups charge, discriminate against “GMOs” in violation of rules of international trade.

WTO-the trade dispute court

The key source of justice and administration of trade treaties is the World Trade Organization (WTO), based in Geneva, Switzerland. The trade agreements under the WTO’s jurisdiction were negotiated, signed, and ratified by most of the nations in the world that conduct international trade. These agreements help makers of products and services, exporters, and importers do business.

These agreements do contain clauses that protect signing countries against environmental and health risks. Unfortunately, members of the European Community have been successful at using some of these measures to block genetically engineered foods purely for political reasons.

Decision: the EU broke biotech treaties

Back in 2003, the WTO heard a list of grievances from the United States, Canada, Argentina and other countries against the European Union. These complaints included accusations the EU countries had imposed a de facto moratorium on the import of any genetically engineered “products” ( including feed, crops and food) and were using measures intended to protect host countries from infectious disease in order to block these GE imports.

The complaint by the U.S. and others centered on the EU’s (and member countries’) use of the precautionary principle, which states that no product can be approved until proven safe (but also states that regulations be proportional to the risk and assessments be taken for costs and benefits), and provisions under the WHO Agreement for Sanitary and Phytosanitary measures (the SPS Agreement), which allows prohibition or restriction of some food imports if, and only if:

  • Measures taken to manage the risk are science-based
  • Measures taken are proportional to the risk and no more disruptive that necessary for managing the risk
  • Measures are developed in accordance with scientific principles and based on scientific evidence

In 2006, the WTO court found that The EU and several member countries violated these terms of the SPS Agreement several times. None of the “biosafety” regulations, purported to protect European citizens from “potentially harmful” genetically engineered agricultural products, met these requirements.

As for crops affected, the WTO court ruled that EU member states breached their agreements when blocking the following 21 products: Falcon oilseed rape, MS8/RF3 oilseed rape, RR fodder beet, Bt-531 cotton, RR-1445 cotton, Liberator oilseed rape, Bt-11 maize (EC-69), RR oilseed rape (EC-70), BXN cotton, Bt-1507 maize (EC-74) Bt-1507 maize (EC-75), NK603 maize, GA21 maize (EC-78), MON810 x GA21 maize, RR sugar beet, GA21 maize (food), Bt-11 sweet maize (food), MON810 x GA21 maize (food), Bt-1507 maize (food), NK603 maize (food), and RR sugar beet (food).

This array of blocked GM products include food, crops and feed (such as RR fodder beet). The EU had banned all GM-based animal feed, even though it is one of the world’s largest overall importer of animal protein — about 72 percent of its animal feed needs are met by imports. Most of the sources of those feed imports come from producers growing genetically modified feed, and in 2011, the EU changed its regulations to allow the import of genetically modified feed that wasn’t already prohibited and had a technically low-level of genetic modification. This rule did not extend to crops and food.

What’s happened since?

Not much. A series of 2012 meetings and workshops of the Council of the European Union ended with no solution towards the settlement required under the WTO judgement made six years earlier. Despite efforts from Hungary and Denmark (in particular) to develop compromise language and break a deadlock against GM imports, the Council concluded that “a political agreement on the GMO dossier is not possible.”

Some of this political rancor arose again during a recent vote of the European Parliament (EP), which disallowed host countries from individually banning the import or use of a genetically engineered food product. While food and trade associations praised the vote, the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety declared that the proposal, even though it lost the EP vote, would not be withdrawn.

Whether the United States, Canada, or other nations will follow through on this decision, or on the EU’s anti-GMO import policies, remains to be seen.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Bill Pilacinski

    Since the discussion has started on ridiculous EU rules on GMOs, lets expand it to consider the exemption for “processing aids”, which allow the addition of GM enzymes, such chymosin, used in cheese production, which the industry knows very well, but few EU consumers do, or yeast used in bread or wine, which no one, except the producer, knows if is GM. Also, the verbal gymnastics that were used to require full regulatory review of GM traits combined by conventional breeding, even though no new OECD unique ID is required.

  • WeGotta

    Why do we, the real people who make up these countries, put up with the continuing erosion of our liberties?
    So if the people in a country all decide they don’t want a product it’s “okay” that some tiny group of people who call themselves [insert official sounding name here] can force things on that country?

    These rules benefit the already powerful who have no allegiance to country and no cares for your personal individual rights.
    The TTP is another nightmare for individual rights and sovereignty.

    • Eric Bjerregaard

      All the people are real, including the ones that rule against those who violate trade agreements. Also another 2 faced comment as you were arguing against first and second amendment rights in previous argument. You are just desperate to find reasons to stop progress and g.e. foods. You will fail.

      • WeGotta

        I can’t fail.

        I never argue against 1st and 2nd amendment rights for people.
        I would argue that these rights should not be given to corporations. One person, one voice, one vote.

        These trade agreements seem to benefit only those who have so much already. It’s rigged.
        Corporations suing countries for loss of theoretical profits. Give me a break. Governments should throw these corporate lawyers in jail for treason if they come into their country trying to usurp democracy with that BS.
        That would end it real quick.

        But that’s the problem with these inept corrupt governments. They are owned by the world bank and WTO because all of them are tied up in the Ponzi scheme of debt based currency. Talk about ultimate control and power.

        “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered.
        I believe that the banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies. The issuing power should be taken from the banks and restored to the people, to whom it properly belongs.”
        “The modern theory of the perpetuation of debt has drenched the earth with blood, and crushed its inhabitants under the burdens ever accumulating.”
        -Thomas Jefferson

        “History records that the money changers have used every form of abuse, intrigue, deceit, and violent means possible to maintain their control over governments by controlling money and it’s issuance.”
        -James Madison

        Now we see how these perversions play out in these world trade agreements controlled by banks, which benefit the powerful.

        Will we ever learn?

        • Eric Bjerregaard

          You lie. You did in the last argument. You have failed and will continue to due so. Because you base your arguments on vague speculation and generalities. Also look up treason. Neither my corporation nor myself can be tried for treason for suing a foreign country. It is impossible for a U.S. citizen to commit treason against France.

          • WeGotta

            I told you. I can’t fail.

            If the people of WeGottaland voted to ban GMO and you came across the border to try and sue the government for money you could have made if we allowed GMO, we would throw you in jail for treason, theft, tomfoolery and general dickishness.
            See, governments can make up their own laws and in WeGottaland we wouldn’t put up with such BS.

            We wouldn’t need to bow to international banks and world trade organizations controlled by banks since we would not be in debt to them. We would be self-sufficient and each citizen would be a power unto themselves, complete, secure and free.

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            I told you. You have failed. You can not commit reason against a country you are not a citizen of. If you signed the treaty you must abide by it. The Europeans signed the treaty. Also the correct name for your tiny country would be delusion land. Or something ending in Stan.

          • WeGotta

            Some of my goals are to live life to the fullest, love as much as I can and enjoy the abundant gifts all around me with gratitude. I have already succeeded.

            In WeGottaland every person who crosses the border would be a WeGottalonian. For two reasons. For one, we would extend all rights and benefits to all people who visit our great land (such as free healthcare). Second, you would be held responsible for any stupidity. Don’t like it? Stay out.

            I wouldn’t sign any treaty with a bank-owned government. Why would I need to? We in WeGottaland have everything we need.

            Which government ever follows the rules? The people in your country don’t care if your government lies and cheats. Your presidents have been grabbing all kinds of power including the right to declare war and the right to negotiate trade agreements. Used to be congress who did those things. None of you seem to care so leave us alone in our country.

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            Only if you quit commenting in reality land.

          • WeGotta

            Oh. You think this is reality? That’s funny.

  • Giovanni Tagliabue

    The author writes about “the precautionary principle, which states that no product can be approved until proven safe”. This is wrong. As I pointed out in an article I wrote for the GLP a few weeks ago (, the Precautionary principle was originally created with the aim of protecting the environment-to push governments to adopt preventative policies against “threats” of environmental damage, even in the absence of sure scientific evidence. Therefore it is a proactive invitation to face supposed, imminent dangers, and the remedies to be taken in advance must be empirically founded. The EU Commission (2000) wrote: “A decision to invoke the precautionary principle does not mean that the measures will be adopted on an arbitrary or discriminatory basis.” Defensive initiatives which are sought on environmental or health grounds are supposed to always be based on “detailed scientific and other objective information”. The EU Parliament, in 2001, overturned these guidelines, creating a sectoral and sectarian regulation for “GMOs”. The principle was also distorted by some eco-fundamentalists, who were successful in diffusing the meme of a “precautionary” approach according to which the burden of proof is supposedly placed on the shoulders of the producers of new agri-food products.