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The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled yesterday (7 February) that the European Union and six of its member states broke trade rules by banning imports of genetically modified (GM) crops and food.

The preliminary ruling, which could have significant implications for developing countries, still needs to be confirmed in a final decision next month, and can be appealed.

Dulce de Oliveira, a professor of plant biotechnology and fellow of the Brazilian Research Council, says the decision could open the European market to GM products from countries such as Brazil, the world's third biggest producer of GM crops.

The verdict came in response to a complaint that Argentina, Canada and the United States made in 2003 against the European Union's ban on GM imports, imposed in 1999.

They said the ban, which lasted until August 2003, was not scientifically justified and was therefore an unfair trade barrier.

The WTO has now agreed, adding that six member states — Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxembourg — also broke the rules by applying their own bans.

Many developing countries have refused to let farmers grow GM crops, partly because of concerns that the crops could jeopardise their access to the lucrative European market by contaminating non-GM exports (see Egypt pulls out of US challenge to Europe's GM ban).

Clare Oxborrow, an anti-GM campaigner with UK-based Friends of the Earth warns that the ruling could discourage developing countries developing policies to regulate the use of GM technology.

Asnake Fikre, a plant biotechnologist at Ethiopia's Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center, told SciDev.Net that the WTO decision would encourage pro-GM governments, such as Ethiopia's, to support local development of GM crops.

He added that anti-GM governments, such as Zambia's, have lost one of their arguments for not adopting the technology (see As drought takes hold, Zambia's door stays shut to GM).

Daniel Mittler, trade advisor to the environmental group Greenpeace International, disagrees. "European consumers, farmers and a growing number of governments remain opposed to [GM organisms], and this will not change — in Europe or globally," he says.

Fernan Lambein, plant biotechnologist at the Institute for Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries in Belgium told SciDev.Net that the WTO decision was about trade not science.

"Personally, I would like to see hungry people in developing countries eating safe food without paying royalties," he added.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, 80 per cent of the global area planted with GM crops last year was in the three countries that filed the complaint with the WTO.

The United States accounted for 55 per cent, Argentina had 19 per cent and Canada six per cent.

Link to the WTO conclusions and recommendations