After months of speculation, the United States and three other countries have announced they will file a World Trade Organization case that could force the European Union to end its five-year moratorium on approval of imports of genetically enhanced crops.

U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, appearing with Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman at a press conference in Washington, said the WTO-illegal moratorium has cost U.S. corn farmers alone “hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales” in the last four years.

“More importantly, it is harming people in countries like these who don't have enough to eat and who are paying the real price of the European Union's illegal moratorium on these biotech products,” he said, referring to examples of people starving as a result of the moratorium.

Washington sources have been saying that the case has been under consideration for months while U.S. officials tried to negotiate an end to the moratorium. Zoellick said those officials' patience finally wore out.

Cooperating with the United States in filing the case will be Argentina, Canada and Egypt. Several other countries, including Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay have also expressed their support and will become third party filers.

“The EU's moratorium violates WTO rules,” said Zoellick. “People around the world have been eating biotech food for years. Biotech food helps nourish the world's hungry population, offers tremendous opportunities for better health and nutrition and protects the environment by reducing soil erosion and pesticide use.

“We've waited patiently for five years for the EU to follow the WTO rules and the recommendations of the European Commission, so as to respect safety findings based on careful science. The EU's persistent resistance to abiding by its WTO obligations has perpetuated a trade barrier unwarranted by the EC's own scientific analysis, which impedes the global use of a technology that could be of great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world.”

Joining Zoellick and Veneman at the briefing were C.S. Prakash, a biotechnology expert from the Tuskegee Institute; T.J. Buthelezi, a small farmer of biotech crops from South Africa; Dr. Diran Makinde, DVM, Ph.D., Dean of the School of Agriculture, University of Venda for Science and Technology, South Africa; Ariel Alvarez-Morales, principal scientist, Department of Plant Genetic Engineering, Center for Research and Advanced Studies, Irapuato, Mexico.

Prakash, who organized a pro-agricultural biotech declaration signed by 20 Nobel Laureates and over 3,200 scientists, said the refusal of countries like Zambia to allow biotech crops to be grown has contributed to starvation in those countries.

“With this case, we are fighting for the interests of American agriculture. This case is about playing by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed to comply with its WTO obligations,” said Veneman.

“Biotechnology is helping farmers increase yields, lower pesticide use, improve soil conservation and water pollution and help reduce hunger and poverty around the world.”

Farmers must be assured that their crops won't be unfairly rejected simply because they were produced using biotechnology, the secretary said.

“The EU actions threaten to deny the full development of a technology that holds enormous potential benefits to both producers and consumers worldwide, while also providing a very significant means to combat hunger and malnutrition that afflict hundreds of millions of people across the developing world.”

“The United States and the EU have a large and important economic relationship, and disputes such as this, while very important, make up only one part of that relationship,” said Zoellick. “The United States will continue to work with the EU to manage this and other disputes in an appropriate way, and we look forward to advancing our shared objectives in the Doha global trade negotiations and other fora.”

The WTO agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) recognizes that countries are entitled to regulate crops and food products to protect health and the environment, said Veneman. The WTO SPS agreement requires, however, that members have “sufficient scientific evidence” for such measures, and that they operate their approval procedures without “undue delay.”

“Otherwise, there is a risk countries may without justification use such regulations to thwart trade in safe, wholesome, and nutritious products,” the secretary noted.

Before 1999, the EU approved nine agriculture biotech products for planting or import. It then suspended consideration of all new applications for approval, and has offered no scientific evidence for this moratorium on new approvals, Zoellick noted.

“As EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom said almost three years ago (July 13, 2000): “We have already waited too long to act. The moratorium is illegal and not justified…the value of biotechnology is poorly appreciated in Europe.”

Agricultural biotechnology is a continuation of the long tradition of agricultural innovation that has provided the basis for rising prosperity for the past millennium. Humankind has historically progressed in boosting agricultural productivity, quality and choices by harnessing science to develop new forms of crops.

More than 145 million acres (58 million hectares) of biotech crops were grown in the world in 2002. Worldwide, about 45 percent of soy, 11 percent of corn, 20 percent of cotton and 11 percent of rapeseed are biotech crops. In the United States, 75 percent of soy, 34 percent of corn and 71 percent of cotton are biotech crops.

Numerous organizations, researchers and scientists have determined that biotech foods pose no threat to humans or the environment, Zoellick said. Examples include the French Academy of Medicine and Pharmacy, and the French Academy of Sciences, the 3,200 scientists who cosponsored a declaration on biotech foods and numerous scientific studies including a joint study conducted by the seven national academies of science (the National Academies of Science of the United States, Brazil, China, India, and Mexico, plus the Royal Society of London and the Third World Academy of Sciences).

For more information on the WTO filing and biotechnology issues, go to www.ustr.gov, www.usda.gov.

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