The EU has won a further extension to the deadline for complying with a WTO ruling to lift national bans on genetically modified crops. The deadline was originally extended from November 21st 2007 to January 11th 2008. The European Commission has now negotiated a one-month extension to February 11th with Canada and a five-month extension to June 11th with Argentina. However, negotiations are continuing with the third complainant, the US, which is threatening to impose trade sanctions unless there is "meaningful progress" on EU GM crop approvals.
The US, Canada and Argentina originally complained to the WTO about the EU GMO registration system over four years ago. Last year, the WTO ruled that bans on GM crops by six EU member states were inconsistent with international agreements. The EU has since resolved all but Austria's ban on the cultivation of two EU-approved maize lines: Monsanto's MON810 and Bayer CropScience's T25.
The US remains concerned over the current status of GM crops in the EU. It expresses further irritation at the French government's decision, also announced on January 11th, to ban MON810 maize. "It is hard to overstate our disappointment with this new biotech ban," says Gretchen Hamel, spokeswoman of the Office of the US Trade Representative.
"The US remains very concerned with EU treatment of agricultural biotech products," Ms Hamel says. "We are taking steps necessary under WTO rules to preserve our right in the WTO to suspend trade concessions." Nevertheless, the US goal is to normalise trade in GM products, not to impose trade sanctions on EU goods, Ms Hamel stresses. Therefore, it has agreed to suspend "for a limited period" its proceedings to request WTO authority for trade action. The US will evaluate EU progress during the "coming months". However, "the patience of US stakeholders is close to exhaustion," Ms Hamel warns. The US Biotechnology Industry Organization has applauded the government's efforts "to end this continued impasse".
"We interpret the US request for retaliation as a means to safeguard their right to impose sanctions in the future," says a Commission spokesperson. "We would not expect the US to move immediately on this front, in light of the constructive discussions held to date," the spokesperson adds. Nevertheless, the Commission acknowledges that there is a "serious risk" that, if the EU is not seen to be fully abiding by its own GMO regulatory framework, the US and others could seek sanctions that would have a "significant impact" on EU exports.
In addition to taking action on the national bans, the Commission has also made progress on other complaints in the WTO case over undue delays in the registration process for GM crops, it points out. Seventeen authorisations have been granted since the establishment of the WTO panel, the Commission says.
Nevertheless, all of these approvals have had to go through a prolonged decision-making process because of the repeated failure of EU member states to agree on whether to accept or reject the crops. Registrations to date have only been for the import of GM crops and products. Applications to cultivate two GM maize lines, Dow AgroSciences/DuPont's 1507 and Syngenta's Bt11, have been stalled in the Commission since last year, even though they have been cleared as safe by the European Food Safety Authority.