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Hitt og þetta 8. febrúar 2006

DJ THE SKEPTIC: Gene Genie

LONDON (Dow Jones)--Frankenfoods. Mutant soybeans. Freaky cotton. Apparently Europe was wrong to ban such genetically-modified produce.

The WTO ruled this week that the E.U. and six member states broke trade rules by barring the import of GM products.

But then the E.U. denies there was any sort of moratorium in place, de facto or otherwise. And so far officials aren't prepared to say whether Europe will appeal the WTO findings. It was, after all, the longest such report in the trade organization's history, running to 1,050 pages.

But appeal they should.

The widespread and unfettered introduction of GMOs into the European ecosystem is a mistake that's irreversible, it's outcome unknowable based on the testing to date.

And as much as some would like to frame the case against genetically-altered crops as one of standing against science and progress, protectionist rather than protective, it's simply one of common sense.

The WTO's argument that the E.U. was wrong to delay the introduction of GMOs because there's no adequate evidence of their harm is spurious. Surely the onus should be on proving their real benefit and lack of negative side-effects?

For that matter, it's dubious whether it's even in the trade body's remit to rule on what is essentially a health and environment issue, rather than one simply of restricted trade.

Europe raises two strong arguments for the decline in crop imports from North America: the E.U. process for approval is only lengthy in the eyes of markets with a lenient approach to food and environmental safety issues, and U.S. agricultural efficiency has been waning anyway.

Europe has been hit hard in the past by serious food scares, including mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease and now the shadow of bird flu. A conservative approach is therefore understandable.

GMOs may ultimately be found to present no health risk to consumers, but that's by no means a sure thing.

Disruption of biodiversity and the possibility of transporting modified pollens to other crops could impact the environment in unintended but serious ways - something that won't show up in only a few years of testing.

The debate goes beyond Europe's borders. Africa remains very much reliant on its agrarian economy, and so is turning to GMO varieties to help boost crop yields and improve pest resistance.

Some African countries have followed Europe's lead on GMO, even going so far as to restrict the entry of aid shipments.

Widespread adoption of GM crops in Africa represents an easy answer to food shortages and uneconomic farming. But if the proponents of these crops are proved wrong, then it's here that unchecked use can cause the most damage globally.

And once again it will be Africans who suffer.

(Robb M. Stewart, founder of the Skeptic column in 2001, has reported for Dow Jones Newswires since 1997 from Sweden and the U.K. He can be reached at robb.stewart@dowjones.com)

(END) Dow Jones Newswires