LOS ANGELES – The United States, whose farmers are feeling the impact from a ban on genetically modified food by the European Union (search), is working on a claim filed with the World Trade Organization (search) calling the EU's actions a form of illegal protectionism.
The high-profile political fight with Europe comes even as some Europeans say they have no evidence that genetically modified, or GM, foods are in any way harmful. EU scientists acknowledge that after dozens of studies that show no ill effects from engineered foods, their rejection is not science-based, but the result of paranoia following outbreaks like mad cow and foot-and-mouth disease.
"There is a genuine fear in Europe of the consequences of these foods. As a result it's difficult for politicians to certify new strains of genetically modified foods," said Clyde Prestowitz, president of the Economic Strategy Institute (search) in Washington and a former trade negotiator.
The impact has been the forceful rejection by European countries of American genetically modified food exports. The position was repeated earlier this month at a Group of Eight meeting in France and again when the EU Parliament ratified a three-year-old U.N. biosafety protocol that lets countries ban imports of a genetically modified product if they feel there is not enough scientific evidence a product is safe.
The treaty also requires exporters to label shipments containing genetically altered foods such as corn or cotton.
The United States did not sign the treaty, which has not yet reached the number of signatories yet to put it into effect.
Regardless of the treaty's status, the European Union's intransigence on the issue has effectively barred many American food imports while shielding European farmers from competition.
In the United States, up to 70 percent of prepared foods contain genetically modified ingredients. Not only will the EU not accept them, but their ban has effectively forced starving nations to reject food aid, of which the United States provides 50 percent of the world's stocks.
Last year, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, two African nations experiencing ongoing famine, turned down thousands of tons of desperately needed foods, in part because of Europe's ban, in part because of an international propaganda campaign.
"They basically are saying it is better a million people starve to death than eat perfectly nutritious genetically modified food from the U.S. where people have been eating it for 10 years without negative effect," said Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore. Moore has since broken with Greenpeace.
On Tuesday, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in Britain said in a draft paper that genetically modified foods can help underdeveloped countries meet its nutritional needs.
The paper added that European policy could hinder developmental efforts by countries forced to comply with strict export policies. But the organization said developing countries must decide for themselves whether to accept genetically altered foods.
Other nations have also rejected GM food. Thai government officials refused to accept "golden rice," which has been cross-pollinated with daffodils to add pro-Vitamin A to Asian diets, helping to prevent blindness in children. Rice is a major staple of the Thai diet but detractors say golden rice seed, made by British and German companies for export, has not been proven beneficial.
Moore said no science backs up claims that genetically modified foods can cause disease, and said scare tactics are inexcusable.
"They refuse the corn because of scare tactics by environmentalists. They say it's poisoned and contaminated, that's the way GM is described in the developing world," Moore said.
The WTO case is a long way from being decided. In the meantime, the five-year-old ban continues.
Fox News' William La Jeunesse contributed to this report.