Bitter transatlantic divisions over the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods may soon be smoothed over, but the gradual enforcement of a global treaty on importing GM products may throw up new barriers to future trade. \nIn the US, at least 70 percent of supermarket foods contain GM organisms (GMOs) and most consumers shrug off claims from green groups that these products may be harmful. \nBut in Europe, they are widely regarded as "Frankenstein Foods" and are shunned by an overwhelming number of consumers. \nDiplomats say developing nations, mostly those in Asia and Africa that need food aid, are caught between the two powers. Washington says it is helping feed the Third World with its GM grain, but Brussels says the Americans are dumping surpluses. \nAt loggerheads for years with EU nations over GM foods, the US has now chosen the WTO as its battleground. \nLast year, Washington made good on repeated threats to retaliate over EU biotech policy, which it says has no scientific justification. It filed a WTO suit claiming its farmers were losing some US$300 million a year due to lost sales. \nThe EU may soon lift its unofficial five-year ban on new GM crops and products with the expected approval in the next few months for imports of a engineered sweet maize known as Bt-11. \nWhile this might be enough to pacify Washington in the short term and stave off the immediate WTO threat, the acid test will be for the EU to allow new GM seeds for planting in its fields. \nUS biotech firms will watch this closely, diplomats say, and view any EU authorization of "live" GMOs as a chance to market their products in Europe -- adding to the likely rise in trade if the EU allows imports of new GMO products like Bt-11. \n"They [European Commission] will want to give a positive signal across the Atlantic that we take this seriously," said one diplomat. "Bt-11 will help, but [Washington] will want to see a proper commitment to getting live GMOs for planting." \nWhile a main US concern is to resume shipping GM grain to Europe, this trade could be squeezed by the rules of the UN Cartagena Protocol, which aims for transparency in GMO trade. \nSignatory countries now number more than 80 and will meet this month in Malaysia to discuss how to implement the protocol, their first meeting since it came into force in September. \nThe protocol obliges exporters to provide more information about GM products like maize and soybeans before any shipment to recipient countries, to help them decide whether to accept it. \nUnder its provisions, a nation may reject GMO imports or donations -- even without scientific proof -- if it fears they pose a danger to traditional crops, undermine local cultures or cut the value of biodiversity to indigenous communities. \nUS officials say they want to see proper implementation of the protocol by its signatories, in line with WTO rules. If not, this would harm trade and could be challenged. \n"We are certainly very concerned that there could be disruption of trade if the implementation of the protocol isn't done properly," a US government official said. \n"If there is some way that the parties implement the protocol that is inconsistent with the provisions of the WTO, then we would certainly want to have that addressed at the WTO." \nAlthough many African nations are prone to food shortages, countries like Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique have voiced concerns about accepting GM maize donations -- saying GMOs have not been fully tested for environmental or health effects. \nThe US, where most GMOs originate, has not signed the Cartagena agreement and looks unlikely to do so in the short term, insisting GMOs are no different from natural organisms. \nAlong with major GMO exporters Canada, Australia and Argentina, the US says GM crops are safe, can increase yields and resist destructive pests. \nBut the EU takes a diametrically opposed view and has introduced tough rules on traceability and labelling of GMOs in foods and animal feed that go beyond the Cartagena requirements. \nThe question is: If the EU does lift its ban, will US exporters be able to comply with Europe's stringent new rules? \n"It's our hope that we can come to an agreement with all the parties on documentation that would give all countries, including the African countries, the information that they need and the ability for them to assess the risk of these products, in an intelligent fashion," the US government official said. \nEU diplomats are not so sure, since GM products have long been sold in the US without special labels -- making it difficult for US exporters to comply with EU regulations. \n"There would be no way of telling what was in any particular grain shipment," the diplomat said. "If they start re-shipping, which must be the game plan with GM ... then they would have to confront it [traceability and labelling] in some way." \nEU consumers themselves might hold the key. Given their high degree of opposition to GM foods, supermarkets are already reluctant to ramp up their small ranges of GM produce -- so US exporters might struggle to find much of a market in Europe.
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