The confrontation between Europe and the United States over genetically modified foods shifted up a gear this week when the US President George. W. Bush accused Europe of impeding efforts to fight world famine because of its trade policy of blocking new bio-crops.
Speaking before the US Coast Guard Academy on Wednesday prior to a trip to Europe late next week for a summit with allies, Bush's accusations are unlikely to aid trans-Atlantic relations - already frayed over the war in Iraq.
In keeping with the US position voiced last week when it announced the filing of a case with the World Trade Organisation over Europe's refusal to accept GM crops, Bush branded Europe's position as based on 'unfounded, unscientific fears.'
"This has caused many African nations to avoid investing in biotechnologies, for fear their products will be shut out of European markets. European governments should join - not hinder - the great cause of ending hunger in Africa," Bush told listeners. Without adding that Europe's position on GM foods means that, in fact, US farmers are losing millions of dollars each year in potential trade.
In response to the US decision last week to file a case with the WTO, the European Commission condemned the move as "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful". EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy stressed at the time that despite the US claim that there is a so-called GM moratorium in Europe - because no new GMOs have been authorised for release into the environment since 1998 - the EU has authorised GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications.
As we reported at the time, the timing of the US move has perplexed many. This is because the EU is close to adopting tough rules - some of the toughest in the world - on the labelling and traceability of GM products. Crucially, the new legislation could ultimately lead to the end of the moratorium.
A recent article in The Economist ('The GM Gamble', May 15, 2003) suggests that the Americans may be hoping that the WTO complaint will strengthen their hand in the upcoming Doha trade talks. The article cites Gary Hufbauer, from the Institute for International Economics, a Washington think-tank, who suggests that the Bush administration may be keen to get a ruling in its favour on GM food, so that the issue can be taken into the Doha negotiations.
Against that, there is the possibility that America has given up of hope of reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) this year. CAP reform, currently being pushed by the European Commission, includes 'de-coupling', a separation of the financial support farmers receive for the amount they produce. The Economist article stresses that this particular reform is essential to Europe's ability to liberalise its farm trade, which in turn is a prerequisite for keeping the Doha round of trade talks alive.
"Had the Americans thought there was a serious chance of meaningful farm reform in Europe, they would have delayed their GM complaint," said Hufbauer.