A WTO dispute settlement panel has issued a preliminary ruling that the European Union engaged in an illegal moratorium on the importation of genetically modified foods as charged in a complaint brought by the United States, Canada and Argentina.

The ruling, which reportedly runs more than 1,000 pages, said similar bans imposed separately by France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg and Greece also violated WTO rules.

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman applauded the preliminary ruling, calling on EU officials to provide a “timely, transparent and scientific review of agricultural biotechnology products” now that the dispute settlement panel has issued its long-delayed ruling.

“The facts on agricultural biotechnology are clear and compelling,” Portman said. “It is a safe and beneficial technology that is improving security and helping to reduce poverty worldwide.”

The European Union first began barring the sale of genetically modified crops and foods in 1998. It continued to do so up until 2004 when the European Commission allowed U.S. firms to begin shipping a modified strain of sweet corn into EU member countries.

EU officials say they have allowed the import of nine biotech crops since 2004, but the American Soybean Association said the Bush administration needs to continue to push the Europeans to base import decisions on scientifically sound principles.

“This favorable WTO ruling should only be seen as ‘step one’ of the actions against Europe’s unjustified and unscientific policies toward biotechnology,” said Rick Ostlie, ASA first vice president from Northwood, N.D. “What must follow is the more important ‘step two,’ a challenge of the EU’s unfair traceability and labeling laws.”

Ostlie said the labeling requirements for all foods and feeds that contain or consist of biotech products are costing U.S. soybean growers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales each year.

U.S. soybean exports to the European Union have dropped from 8.3 million metric tons in 1996 to 3.7 million metric tons in 2004. Between 2002 and 2004 alone, U.S. exports dropped 39 percent.

“The EU imposed these requirements despite repeated pronouncements by EU scientific committees that biotech foods and feeds are entirely safe,” said Ostlie. “Many EU leaders have admitted that the labels serve no food safety purpose. Nevertheless, consumers perceive the labels as health warnings, and most EU food companies and retailers have decided against marketing labeled foods.”

A spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization said the European Union’s lack of action on biotech crop petitions has effectively blocked up to $300 million of U.S. agricultural exports annually.

“With this WTO victory fresh in hand against Europe’s discriminatory biotech system, the United States and our allies must now challenge Europe’s even more egregious biotech traceability and labeling rules,” said Ostlie.

“These unfair and non-science based rules are costing U.S. soybean farmers and U.S. food companies hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales each year. ASA looks forward to working closely with U.S. Trade Representative Portman and others in the administration to mount such a WTO challenge.”

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the widespread adoption of biotech crops in the United States and other countries is evidence such crops provide benefits to farmers and rural communities.

“Global technology acreage has increased more than 50 fold in the first decade of commercialization with more than 1 billion acres planted,” he said. “More than 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries, including five EU nations, are reducing pesticide use, receiving higher yields and preventing erosion by planting biotech varieties.”

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