USA: Washington Pressures EU to Drop GMO Labeling

Confidential documents obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe underline American opposition to European Union plans for compulsory tracing and labeling rules for all food and animal feed containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) above a certain threshold. The United States is concerned that tracing and labeling rules would limit imports of American crops such as GM soy and corn.

The U.S. government argues that the European Union proposal is "unworkable and not enforceable," and that labeling will actually erode rather than bolster consumer confidence.

The comments are contained in two recent American submissions to the Technical Barriers to Trade Committee of the World Trade Organization, which is coordinating global response to European Union plans for a system of supply chain tracing and labeling GMOs.

The European Commission issued legislative proposals last summer as part of European Union (EU) efforts to strengthen consumer safeguards over genetically modified organisms.

Argument continues to rage over whether a de facto European Union moratorium on new genetically modified product approvals should be lifted before the supply chain rules take effect.

Today's leaked documents confirm that, although the United States wants the moratorium lifted as soon as possible, it does not accept a tracing and labeling regime. The EU's proposals are not necessary on food safety grounds, the American documents argue. The U.S. maintains that tracing GMOs along the entire supply chain would be too complicated, and the whole system would be vulnerable to fraud.

The European Union's de facto moratorium on genetically modified organisms was initiated by five of the 15 EU Member States in 1999 -- Denmark, France, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg. They demanded traceability and labeling regulations before any more genetically modified organisms are approved for release in the European Union. Since then, three more Member States -- Austria, Belgium and Germany -- have adopted positions which support the moratorium.

The U.S. comments identify as the ''core problem facing the European Union in biotechnology'' the fact that EU Member States have the final say in the authorization procedure. The United States considers that the recent proposals fail to address this and complains that ''decisions will still be made through political process'' and therefore ''individual Member States will continue to be able to hold the approval process hostage to political concerns.''

The American submission to the WTO's Technical Barriers to Trade Committee asserts that the EU risks further damaging current low levels of consumer confidence in food safety by introducing labeling. If the genetically modified organism in question has been approved as safe for use in food, the American argument goes, then a label alerting consumers to the presence of GMOs would imply that safety regulations are lax and cannot be relied upon.

In response to the submission, Friends of the Earth Europe accused the U.S. government of seeking to "bully" countries around the world into abandoning plans for tough GMO legislation.

Leaked documents from the U.S. and Argentinean governments obtained by Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) show the pressure that the U.S. and biotech companies have put on countries like Croatia and Bolivia which wanted to adopt strict GMO regulations.

Currently, the pressure on Asian countries such as China, Korea and Thailand that plan to introduce new labeling laws for GMOs, the environmental group claims. "Last year, U.S. threats to Sri Lanka of action under the WTO led to the abandonment of a proposed ban on GMOs that was to have been implemented in September 2001," FoEE said.

Juan Lopez, adviser on genetic engineering at Friends of the Earth International, said the U.S. pressure on other countries to interfere in their decision making processes is "outrageous."

''The U.S. is effectively saying not only that citizens' demands should be ignored but also that EU Member States should not have the right to take decisions about the GMO authorization process," Lopez said. "That is absolutely unacceptable in the interests of democracy. EU Member States, as well as other countries round the world, should tell the U.S. government to back off, ignore their threats, and stand up for their democratic rights."

Critics of genetically modified foods say people risk illness if they are allergic to genes spliced into unlabeled foods they have previously found harmless. In 1996, Brazil nut genes were spliced into soybeans by the Pioneer Hi-Bred company. Some individuals are so allergic to this nut, they go into apoplectic shock which can cause death. Animal tests confirmed the risk, and the product was removed from the market before any deaths occurred.

The journal "Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease" ran an article in 1998 suggesting that gene technology may be implicated in the resurgence of infectious diseases. "Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases" by Mae-Wan Ho, Terje Traavik, Orjan Olsvik, Beatrix Tappeser, C. Vyvyan Howard, Christine von Weizsacker, and George McGavin pointed to growing resistance to antibiotics misused in bioengineering, the formation of new and unknown viral strains, and the lowering of immunity through diets of processed and altered foods.

The United States produces much of the genetically modified food marketed around the world. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 63 percent of U.S. soybean acreage in 2001 was GMO, and GMO soybeans account for over 20 percent of soybean acreage in Brazil and 50 percent in Argentina.

The USDA says genetically engineered crops are not dangerous and use less water and herbicides than traditional crops. Various companies are engineering potatoes with less starch that absorb less fat during frying, corn and sweet potatoes that contain high levels of amino acids, such as lysine, and high sucrose soybeans that taste better and have greater digestibility.

U.S. biotech giant Monsanto says there is no need to label genetically modified foods. "Food labels were established to provide information about a product, such as ingredient and nutrition information, or warnings about a health risk. Products from agricultural biotechnology crops do not pose any new or unique risks and labels -- other than those used for the reasons described -- would not provide health or safety information," the company says.

"To the contrary," Monsanto says, "labels could mislead consumers by implying that there is a risk," the position identical to that asserted in the American submissions to the World Trade Organization committee.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 110 Trade Justice
  • 181 Food and Agriculture

Stay Informed