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World Trade Organization Opens Door for Biotech Crops in Europe

For years, the European Union has banned the sale of genetically modified foods in most European countries. Now the World Trade Organization says that ban is no longer legal. Here are details on the preliminary decision.

Based on a complaint from the United States, Canada and Argentina -- the largest growers of genetically modified foods -- the World Trade Organization ruled Tuesday that the EU and six of its member states are breaking international trade rules by barring them.

Also knows as 'biofoods or 'frankenfoods', they are organisms whose genetic material has been altered.

The most popular ones are corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. They have been around since the mid-1990s, but the EU banned their import years ago due to concern for consumer safety.

Gregory Conko is a trade analyst with the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC.. He says the E.U.'s policies are outdated. "The fact that the World Trade Organization is coming out against them, that every major scientific organization around the world is coming out against them, is reminding them that it is time to move on -- time to reform biotech restrictions in the European Union."

Proponents of the genetically modified foods say they increase yields and allow crops to better resist weeds and insects.

While most scientists agree they are safe for consumption, opponents say the foods are not properly tested or labeled, and are unsafe for both humans and the environment. Europeans strongly oppose the sale of these foods, in part because of several food-safety scandals in the 1990s.

Clare Oxborrow works for Friends of the Earth, an international environmental group that opposes the ruling. She says, "The types of herbicides they use, that are specifically designed to be used on the GM [genetically modified] crop are called ‘broad spectrum’ weed killers, which means they kill off everything in the field apart from the GM crop that has been specifically designed to withstand it, and that leads to less food for birds and less wildlife."

The decision by the WTO panel is not final, and includes only 25 crops, not genetically modified ones. But it is viewed by some as a victory for biotechnology groups in the United States. The EU says it is too early to say whether or not it will appeal the ruling.