U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick announced that the United States was filing a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization challenging the five-year moratorium after months of negotiations trying to get it lifted voluntarily. Also signing onto the complaint were Argentina, Canada and Egypt.
The administration has been under pressure for months from lawmakers, farm groups and the biotechnology industry to file the complaint over the Europeans' ban on biotech imports. The administration had argued against the ban, but had delayed filing a WTO case while President Bush assembled support for a war against Iraq.
Veneman said the case was filed to help farmers wanting to plant genetically modified — or "GM" — crops.
"Farmers here and around the world must be assured that their products won't be rejected simply because they used biotechnology," she said.
EU officials questioned the action, saying it will further damage trade relations already strained by the U.S. decision to launch a war against Iraq despite opposition from members of the U.N. Security Council.
The European Union started the ban because it doubts the safety of biotech foods, though the United States contends such food is safe.
In 1998, the United States exported $63 million worth of corn to the European Union, but the exports dwindled to $12.5 million last year.
That drop-off might also be due to falling commodities prices, less demand due to the recession, and U.S. corn being priced out of foreign markets by a strong dollar. But farm industry advocates blame the EU's ban.
"Europeans have to know that they cannot use this as a trade barrier against us," said Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Concerns grew last August when some southern African nations facing famine rejected U.S. food aid because it included genetically modified grain. Several countries later agreed to accept the products, but only after they had been milled.
Corn and soybeans that have been genetically designed to tolerate Monsanto's Roundup herbicide are widely grown throughout the United States. Some biotech crops can help increase yields and others are resistant to common field pests.
The Agriculture Department estimates that 38 percent of the 79 million acres of corn planted this year will be genetically engineered varieties. Biotech soybeans will cover 80 percent of this year's anticipated crop of 73.2 million acres.
Proponents say biotech crops could revolutionize agriculture by producing plants resistance to pests, chemicals and droughts. The bio-engineered plants could be grown by farmers with little access to technology in harsh environments where orthodox agricultural does poorly or fails.
By making agriculture more productive, developing economies could start devoting labor and resources to other activities, thus moving poor countries away from subsistence farming.
But GM-food opponents question the effect of genetic tinkering on the environment, the people who eat the crops, and agricultural economies.
Some worry, for example, that plants which produce their own pest resistance could spur mutations in insects that make the bugs a more fearsome threat not only to the GM plants, but to less-protected regular crops as well.
GM-food opponents have attacked U.S. regulations that allow the biotech companies themselves to certify that biotech pesticides, plants and foods are safe.
But the USDA contends the agencies involved — the EPA, Food and Drug Administration and Animal and Plant Inspection Service — obtain detailed data and regulate GM products as much as others.
Trans-Atlantic trade disputes are nothing new. Last week, the EU gave Washington until the end of the year to stop illegal tax breaks for exporters or face up to $4 billion in trade sanctions in retaliation for Washington's failure to change the tax law, which the WTO ruled illegal four years ago.
Just last year, the EU slapped restriction on U.S. steel exports because of the Bush administration's decision to place tariffs on European steel, in an effort to protect American jobs.
In the past, the United States has imposed sanctions against the Europeans, including over rules on banana imports and following an EU ban on hormone-treated beef.