So, they went ahead and did it anyway. Despite imminent changes to the European legislation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), re-iterated by EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy just this week, the US has gone ahead and filed a World Trade Organisation (WTO) case against the European Union (EU) "over its illegal five-year moratorium on approving agricultural biotech products". And the US is not alone - Argentina, Canada and Egypt are also in on the act.
In true crowd-pleasing rhetoric, US Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick, at the Washington announcement, commented yesterday : "Biotech food helps nourish the world's hungry population, offers tremendous opportunities for better health and nutrition and protects the environment by reducing soil erosion and pesticide use."
"With this case, we are fighting for the interests of American agriculture. This case is about playing by the rules negotiated in good faith. The European Union has failed to comply with its WTO obligations," added Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman, who with Zoellick, jointly announced the filing of the case.
The WTO agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary measures (SPS) recognises that countries are entitled to regulate crops and food products to protect health and the environment. The WTO SPS agreement requires, however, that members have "sufficient scientific evidence" for such measures, and that they operate their approval procedures without "undue delay".
In a rapid response to the US decision, the Commission condemned the move as "legally unwarranted, economically unfounded and politically unhelpful".
EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy said: "The EU's regulatory system for GMO authorisation is in line with WTO rules: it is clear, transparent and non-discriminatory. There is therefore no issue that the WTO needs to examine."
Lamy stressed that despite the US claim that there is a so-called moratorium, the EU has authorised GM varieties in the past and is currently processing applications.
The moratorium in the EU on approval of new GM varieties relates to the fact that since October 1998, no new GMOs have been authorised for release into the environment. The reason being, claims the Commission, that the EU's regulatory regime was incomplete and unable therefore to address the challenges posed by modern technology of genetic modification. This new regulatory framework was adopted in March 2001 and entered into force in October 2002.
Crucially, and in contradiction to the US claim yesterday that Europe's behaviour, "has perpetuated a trade barrier unwarranted by the EC's own scientific analysis", the Commission stressed that a number of new applications for marketing of GMOs are at an advanced stage of examination and could be granted over the next months in line with EU legislation. "Therefore, the EU system is and will be science-based, not driven by economic considerations," re-iterated the Commission in a statement on Tuesday.
In what can only be seen as a tit-for-tat dialogue, the Brussels institution also recalled that "the US has so far opposed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which has been signed by over 100 countries and is intended to ensure through agreed international rules that countries, exporters and importers have the necessary information to make informed choices about GMOs".
And they went further. In the statement, the Commission asks the question, "What is the real US motive in bringing a case?"
David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer protection stated: "We have been working hard in Europe to complete our regulatory system in line with the latest scientific and international developments. The finalisation process is imminent. This is essential to restore consumer confidence in GMOs in Europe."
Byrne recalled the simple fact - and one seemingly ignored by the US - that the European consumer remains archly cynical of GM products: by all accounts, they simply do not want to buy them. In a country where the law of supply and demand is king, it is surprising that the US overlooked the fact that it is likely that the lack of consumer demand for GM products actually accounts for the low sales of GMOs in the EU market. "Unless consumers see that the authorisation process is up-to-date and takes into account all legitimate concerns, consumers will continue to remain sceptical of GM products," said Byrne.
Ironically, it is the legislative response to this cynical consumer feeling in Europe that sees the EU close to adopting far tighter rules on labelling and traceability, which could ultimately lead to the end of the moratorium.
Echoing the sentiments of Lamy and Bryne, EU Commissioner for the Environment Margot Wallstrom, commenting on the US move, said : "It can only make an already difficult debate in Europe more difficult. But in the meantime, the Commission strongly believes that we in Europe should move ahead with completing our legislation on traceability and labelling and on food and feed, currently before the European Parliament. "
Indeed, this action by the US, described by Lamy at the beginning of the week as 'eccentric' when questioned by reporters on its possible eventuality, lacks coherence. What are the motives? Is it only the billions of dollars that fail to reach the shores? Whatever the response, the US is not alone. Other countries expressing support for the case by joining it as third parties include: Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru and Uruguay.
Arguably, the tension between consumer cynicism over GMOs and the desire by the scientific community to push the boundaries of biotechnology further, and not forgetting the food industry's interest in the use of GM materials, were the prime motivators behind the creation of the new European rules. If passed, they will be the toughest in the world. For many observers, Europe is right to defend its position.