The United States will go to the world's trade court to challenge Europe's ban on genetically modified crops, a move likely to worsen trans-Atlantic trade friction.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said Tuesday that the European Union's refusal to OK biotech crops and foods was in "complete violation" of World Trade Organization rules.
The WTO requires countries banning goods to produce scientific research showing the products are harmful. The 15-nation EU has blocked most biotech food and grain imports, arguing there is no proof they are safe.
EU officials said the U.S. filing at the WTO may short-circuit their attempt to come out with new rules allowing for approval of biotech foods and crops.
The case comes as U.S. and European trade negotiators are ensnared in such seemingly intractable debates as tax breaks for U.S. exporters, European farm subsidies and U.S. steel quotas. And it further damages relations strained by the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq, over objections from EU members France and Germany.
The EU ban costs American farmers an estimated $300 million a year in lost sales and forces many to separate biotech and non-biotech crops if they want to sell to food processors or grain shippers. The ban also hurts U.S. seed makers that want to sell to farmers in Europe and in developing countries that have followed Europe's lead by banning biotech products.
The Bush administration planned to announce the WTO case in January but held off as it tried to get French support for a confrontation with Iraq.
The U.S. "was running out of patience (on the biotech issue), and there is strong political feeling on Capitol Hill that this issue had to be taken to the WTO," said Charlene Barshefsky, the top U.S. trade official under President Clinton.
U.S. biotechnology companies lead in development of seeds engineered to protect crops from pests, weather extremes and chemical weed killers.
Globally, 12% of the land under cultivation was planted with genetically modified, or GM, crops in 2002. In the USA, though, biotech crops accounted for huge chunks of the harvest: 75% of soybeans, 34% of corn, 71% of cotton.
"It hurts prices if we can't export," said Joe Svoboda, a Howells, Neb., farmer and seed dealer.
Up to 75% of the processed foods on grocery shelves in the USA contain GM ingredients. But European consumer groups have vowed to boycott any brands containing biotech products.
"This issue is like the death penalty for them. It goes beyond the normal scope of a trade or agriculture issue," said Dan Glickman, former U.S. Agriculture secretary.
Australia and Canada, both big farm producers using biotech seeds, joined the U.S. in asking the WTO to overturn the EU ban. Also on board: Chile, Colombia, Egypt, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Uruguay.
The case could take 18 months or more to wind its way through the WTO process. Trade experts say a U.S. loss would undermine congressional support for WTO.