Wednesday, October 11, 2006

GMOs, Food Prices, and the WTO

WheatGenetically modified organisms ("GMOs") provoke strong yin and yang responses. Critics accuse them of being dangerous, both to human health and the environment, while champions emphasize their potential for higher productivity, increased efficiency, beneficial new characteristics, and benefits to the environment. The biological basis for the negative claims is difficult to establish conclusively, and several published studies (including one involving GMO-contamination of pollen crucial to migrating butterflies and another suggesting that GMO-genes had "leaked" into native Mexican maize stocks) have raised the alarm then subsequently been repudiated. However, many consumers and their governments remain wary.

Two events have recently coincided that may change the character - and possibly the outcome - of the GMO debate. First, the price of agricultural commodities, such as wheat, have spiked higher, and show few signs of retreating in the near future. Yesterday, for example, the price of wheat reached its highest point in ten years on U.S. markets. For the first time in years, fears about the price and supply of food have begun to perculate up through even the developed countries. And second, the World Trade Organization released its Panel decision on the European Communities' GM-food regulations, finding that, while it did not necessarily violate international trade rules to regulate GMOs to ensure human and environmental safety, the moratoria (whether explicit or de facto) and unreasonable regulatory delays imposed by Europe did constitute violations. Reflecting the appeal of GM crops not only to developed countries, but to developing countries as well, the Panel's decision together considered complaints from the United States (DS291), Canada (DS292), and Argentina (DS293).

Higher prices for food commodities coupled with looser regulation of GMOs should encourage continued growth in higher crop-yield GM crops worldwide. For opponents of GMOs, the search for credible biological evidence of negative effects will have to intensify if they have any hope of slowing the spread of GMOs around the world. Barring a major (and causally-identifiable) health or environmental catastrophe, or significant changes to international trade rules, the one-two punch of higher food prices and permissive international trade rules may fix the fight in favour of GMOs.

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