Canada's goal is to open the European market to Canadian GMO products. A 2006 ruling by the WTO found the EU guilty of undue delays in evalutating GMOs.
Do citizens in a democratic society have a right to determine what kinds of food are grown and sold in their country? Have international trade agreements deprived us of this right? Are locally made decisions, such as creating a zone free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), even possible?
These questions are at the core of a conflict between European governments and Canada over genetically modified foods.
During the past year, Canada has been issuing ultimatums to the European Communities that they have to ease their restrictions on the marketing and sale of genetically modified foods and seeds, regardless of European public opinion. The goal is to open the European market to Canadian GMO products–genetically modified canola in particular.
The Canadian government can make these demands of Europe with the force of international law because of a 2006 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on a complaint taken by the US, Canada, and Argentina. The dispute panel decided that the European Communities as a whole were guilty of “undue delays” in evaluating GMOs. They also ruled individual European states did not have the right kind of scientific study to justify their GMO bans.
Pushing the WTO Rules
The 1,087-page WTO panel decision makes for difficult reading, involving mostly long, repetitive arguments punctuated with startling insights into how trade lawyers think.
For example, at one point the panel gave the hypothetical case of a government not approving genetically modified oranges because they had greatly reduced levels of vitamin C. The panel said they would not see this as a health protection measure because the “nutritional disadvantage could be rectified through the consumption of another source of Vitamin C.” The average person, though, would probably not be so nonchalant about the introduction of genetically modified oranges depleted of vitamin C.
Cutting through all the detail, what the WTO decision essentially does is tell governments two things: (1) Their GMO regulations have to be based on an assessment of the probability of risk. It is not enough to have scientific studies that conclude the probability of risk cannot be estimated or that there is a possibility of risk. (2) Once governments have these studies available to them governments need to act fast–preferably within months–on GMO applications.
This is the brave new world of modern trade agreements, where protection of health and the environment is not a sufficient reason for government action if it gets in the way of trade. When regulations are higher than the international norm, governments can be hauled before a trade panel and forced to justify themselves. Only certain scientific evidence can be used as a defence. Acting on consumer concerns is not considered a valid justification at all.
France Fights Back
In the transatlantic conflict over European acceptance of GMOs, who is currently gaining? On the one hand, the EU has approved 17 GMOs since it was hit with the WTO challenge. On the other hand, in January 2008, France took the surprising step of banning a genetically modified corn variety that had previously been approved. The French government cited new scientific studies indicating this corn had greater potential than previously thought to contaminate non-GMO crops and harm the environment.
President Nicolas Sarkozy explained his government’s action by saying, “With the principle of precaution at stake, I am making a major political decision to carry our country to the forefront of the debate on the environment.”
Maybe Sarkozy has not been adequately briefed on WTO rules, or maybe he is deliberately ignoring them, but the fact is that WTO members are not supposed to do this kind of thing unless they have a WTO-acceptable study to back them up. Regardless of how strongly citizens might oppose GMOs–100 percent of the population could be opposed–public opinion is not supposed to influence a government’s decision.
The French GMO ban is exactly the kind of government initiative Canada was targeting when it launched its legal challenge back in 2003. Canada’s lawyers argued before the WTO panel that there was “an effective ‘political’ decision on the part of the European Communities not to approve applications.” In Canada’s view, since existing risk assessments done for the European Communities did not raise any red flags about GMOs, European approval should have been guaranteed.
The Europeans countered that whether or not legislators believe they have sufficient scientific evidence, making a decision should depend on the level of risk they consider acceptable. For the European Communities, because “GMO technology is still at the frontiers of science,” causing changes “that may have a permanent effect,” legislators are justified in extending the time involved in assessing potential risks.
Canadians Taking Sides
But the WTO panel rejected the European argument. They ruled that, if a WTO-acceptable risk assessment exists to sanction approval of a product, it is not the least bit relevant whether a government believes the study has not withstood the passage of time or that its results are likely to be revised in the future. The government has to approve the product, and approvals have to be granted without “undue delay.”
With this kind of reasoning, the recent French GMO corn ban and other GMO regulations would also likely run into trouble at the WTO. In Canada initiatives on GMOs that would seem to be at odds with the WTO include the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network’s campaign for a global ban on genetically modified trees; NDP agriculture critic Alex Atamanenko’s bill to ban “terminator” seeds; and Greenpeace’s efforts to get mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods.
Are these campaigns then a waste of time in the WTO era? Two experts coming from completely opposite directions on the GMO issue unexpectedly both give the same answer: public opinion is critical in determining whether GMOs get accepted and public awareness campaigns can have a huge impact.
Europeans Won’t be Bullied
Helen Holder, the Friends of the Earth Europe campaigner on GMOs, says Europeans will not be bullied by Canada and the US regardless of the WTO decision. She sees the issue being decided in the marketplace, not at the WTO, because with such strong consumer resistance the dominant European grocery chains have refused to stock GMO foods.
A study commissioned by the federal and Ontario governments on how to promote Canadian GMOs in Europe says much the same thing. In their 2007 report, Exporting Processed Foods Containing GM Ingredients to Europe, British agri-food consultants Promar International concluded that GMO products are facing “ongoing resistance of consumers across the EU.” The consultants blamed this resistance on what they view as lack of consumer understanding of food production, sensational reporting by European media, and the hijacking of the issue by anti-GMO environmental organizations.
But whatever the cause of European resistance to GMOs, the consultants warned that Canadian exporters will find exporting these products to Europe extremely difficult because “major mass market and premium niche market retailers alike have responded to these consumer concerns by positioning their business with a very public anti-GM position.”
In short, European food stores are responding to their customers’ preferences and European politicians are acting with precaution in assessing GMO products. Canada should stop using the WTO to force GMOs on Europeans and listen to their own citizens’ concerns.
Eating Like a Canadian
Since 1994 Health Canada has approved more than 100 genetically modified foods. These range from insect-resistant corn and virus-resistant papaya to omega-3 enhanced pork and microencapsulated fish oil.
Despite the number of modified foods already on the market, Canada’s largest GMO sources are the very crops our farmers grow. Corn, soy, cotton, and canola are Canada’s most genetically modified harvests. Their byproducts, such as oil and flour, are quickly making headway in the Canadian food chain.
Estimates of genetically modified foods in Canada suggest that 70 percent of processed food in Canadian supermarkets contain at least some genetically modified ingredients.
From baby food and baking supplies to frozen foods and pasta sauces, Canadians are consuming GMO products. The Canadian government wants the rest of the world to do the same.
Canada is at It Again
In another decision on food safety, the WTO ruled at the end of March 2008, that Canada could continue to penalize European governments for refusing to allow imports of hormone-treated beef. Groups such as Friends of the Earth Europe and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals condemned this WTO decision, saying it puts the interests of North American exporters before those of European consumers, the environment, and animal welfare.