The US complaint against the strong EU's policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) threatens to force GMOs on countries around the world. It and highlights the power of corporations within the WTO context, as the US and other countries aggressively pursue new markets for their industries.
Volunteers from Greenpeace and Green Hope, a Guangzhou environmental group, blindfold themselves while holding Nestle's Maggi Beancurd and Vegetable Soup which has been found to contain GE ingredients, symbolising the fact that
On 13 May, 2003, the US government filed a complaint under the WTO's dispute settlement process against the EU's ban on GMOs. The WTO challenge was launched despite the fact that the EU was planning to lift the ban within months.
This case is a scare tactic by the US to "encourage" countries in the South to agree to open their markets to genetically engineered (GE) food. This is because many countries now fear that if they reject GMOs, they will be met with huge trade sanctions (which could be worth hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars) in the WTO.
In fact, the US has aggressively gone after a number of developing country governments already, threatening them with action under the WTO if they pass laws on GMOs, such as product labelling that would give consumers the right to choose whether or not they want to eat these foods. The US has used the argument that these regulations are unnecessary in the US, and therefore unnecessary anywhere else. It is a clear example of the US trying to get other countries to adopt its standards as global standards, and to find new markets for its GMO companies - a very powerful corporate lobby group.
It is interesting that the US chose to file the complaint right before the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety ("Biosafety Protocol") was about to enter into force. The Biosafety Protocol is the first legally binding global agreement that allows countries to reject GMOs on the basis of what is known as the "precautionary principle." This principle, which all countries have agreed to, allows countries to take action to protect the environment - for instance by rejecting GMOs from entering their country - even where there is scientific uncertainty.
With this case in the works, many countries may also feel intimidated to implement the Biosafety Protocol rules, for fear that the US will go after them as well. It could make the Biosafety Protocol less powerful at best, and at worst, irrelevant.
The WTO cannot be used in this way to undermine agreements on the environment, especially where public health issues are also at stake - there is a lack of scientific certainty about the safety of GMOs. Decisions on this issue should be taken up under the Biosafety Protocol. Public health and environmental issues are not the expertise of the WTO.