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6-Regulation: Egypt in a jam over GM foods

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TITLE:  In a jam over GM foods
SOURCE: Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Egypt, by Yasser Sobhi
DATE:   Jul 10-16, 2003

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In a jam over GM foods

Egypt is caught in the middle of a dispute between the US and the EU over
genetically modified foods, Yasser Sobhi writes

What started as a regular trade dispute between the US and the EU has
turned out to be a diplomatic nightmare facing the Egyptian government.

The Egyptian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade are at
loggerheads over whether Egypt should join the motion of arbitration
launched by the US against the EU's moratorium on the approval of
genetically modified organisms (GMOs). This difference in position has
not only embarrassed Egypt by going public, but has also infuriated the
US, Egypt's second largest trading partner after the EU.

Last May, the US announced that Egypt, Argentina and Canada will be
joining it in demanding that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) intervene
to force the EU to end its ban on genetically modified (GM) products.
Minister of Foreign Trade Youssef Boutros Ghali had expressed Egypt's
interest in EU markets allowing the entry of such crops, saying Egypt is
now producing GM crops in the new mega projects (such as Toshka) and is
looking to market them.

Egypt's backing of the US position was seen as a smart move aimed at
encouraging the US to launch Free Trade Area (FTA) negotiations with
Egypt. Besides, proponents of the move said it would not be risking
harming bilateral relations with the EU, since the former has launched a
number of complaints against Egyptian products in the past few years.

Egyptian exporters have faced many non-tariff barriers when entering the
EU. Phytosanitary precautions have not only often kept Egyptian potatoes,
fish and dairy products from going into the EU market, but have also
damaged their reputation.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is, on the other hand, sceptical as to
whether Egypt has an interest in launching a dispute. When the Ministry
of Foreign Trade sent Egypt's complaint to the Egyptian Embassy in
Geneva, diplomats did not deliver it to the WTO secretariat. Instead, the
Egyptian ambassador to the European Union issued a statement at the end
of May saying that Egypt has reconsidered its support of the US in its
complaint against the EU. "The Government of Egypt took this decision to
preserve adequate and effective consumer and environmental protection and
with the desire to reduce further distortions and impediments to
international trade that may result due to the further pursuit of this
matter within the WTO," the document said.

Needless to say, the change of heart was welcomed by the EU, and
especially by consumer protection organisations. "We are delighted that
Egypt has withdrawn from this US attempt to force GM foods and crops into
Europe," said Geert Ritsema, Friends of the Earth Europe's GM campaigner.
"Countries should be allowed to choose what they eat and what they grow
in their fields."

But, Egypt's decision has apparently taken its toll on Egypt-US
relations. Shortly after the release of the statement, Robert Zoellick,
the US trade representative, who was quoted earlier this year as saying
that Egypt was a strong candidate for an FTA with the US, came out
shrugging off the possibility that such an FTA will see light any time
soon. He explicitly expressed his disappointment with Egypt's decision to
withdraw from joining the US case as a third party. He said the Egyptian
government was unable to deliver on its promises, excluding Egypt from
the first list of countries with which the US will start FTA negotiations.

During the Davos Forum meetings in Amman, Zoellick severely criticised
Egypt's economic policies, describing them, in front of more than 1,200
businessmen and experts, as unprepared and leading to an unfriendly
investment climate.

Egypt's support of the US in the GM case was crucial. The US has based
its argument for the necessity to develop these crops on its claim that
they would help defeat hunger in developing countries worldwide. The US
considered Egypt as a good representative of those countries.

Meanwhile, Cairo has again been sending out conflicting messages on the
issue. On a visit to the US in late June, the Egyptian foreign trade
minister once again reassured the US administration of Egypt's support of
the GM case. He said that after an upcoming meeting with the Europeans,
Egypt will join the US complaint if it was not convinced by the
Europeans' argument. The following day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
issued a statement saying there has been no change in Egypt's position.

An Egyptian diplomat, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said the
Foreign Ministry believes such an important decision cannot be taken
unilaterally by one ministry and requires more consultations to determine
whether the country is actually negatively affected by the EU's
moratorium. "Egypt is not yet a producer of GM crops and the Ministry of
Health has not allowed the entry of GM products to the Egyptian market,"
he said. "Also, there is no reason to upset the EU, when the benefits of
an FTA with the US are not clear."

A special meeting between Boutros Ghali and Pascal Lamy, the EU trade
commissioner, is to be held in two week's time during which the men are
expected to discuss the EU ban.


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