International Trade and Risk Regulation: Whatever Happened to the Transatlantic Gmo Conflict?

38 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2013

See all articles by Mark A. Pollack

Mark A. Pollack

Temple University - Department of Political Science; Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Date Written: 2013


The transatlantic dispute over the regulation of genetically modified (GM) foods and crops has for more than two decades been one of the most intractable conflicts dividing the United States (US) and the European Union (EU). The eight years of the George W. Bush Administration witnessed the high-water mark of conflict over GM foods, culminating in the US filing of a case against the EU at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2003, the WTO’s subsequent finding in favor of the US in 2006, and the EU’s apparent failure to comply with the ruling by the end of 2008 due to deep-seated opposition among EU member states and their publics. Despite hopes that US and EU policies might converge over time, the US and the EU in January 2009 seemed as far apart as ever on the regulation of GM foods, which threatened to become a flashpoint in the transatlantic relationship during the presidency of Barack Obama.

This paper examines the record of US and EU policies on GM foods during the Obama years, to determine whether policy convergence has taken place, to understand the nature of EU/US cooperation and conflict, and to ascertain the degree of continuity or change from the Bush to the Obama years. The evidence from the period since 2009 suggests substantial continuity in both US and EU policies, which remain deeply entrenched, as well as in the two sides’ joint efforts to manage cooperatively the resulting frictions. In the US, NGO hopes and industry fears of more restrictive GMO regulation under Obama have not come to pass, with regulators continuing to implement the same permissive regulations as the Bush administration, even in the face of increasingly skeptical public opinion and initiatives to require mandatory labeling. In the EU, the Commission has continued its effort to speed up the approval new GM varieties in the face of member-state opposition, but both the EU’s strict regulations and strong public opposition toward GMOs remain entrenched. Regulatory polarization on this issue is therefore likely to remain robust for the foreseeable future, with only minor, path-dependent changes in the absence of any major exogenous shock.

Given this persistent gulf between US and EU policies, prospects for a definitive solution to the GMO dispute seem dim – yet neither have the two sides descended into a transatlantic trade war. Instead, the US under Obama has continued with the broad lines of the approach established during the final years of the Bush administration, threatening retaliation for EU non-compliance in order to keep the pressure on the EU, while working with the Commission to promote the approval of new GM varieties and the adoption of policies important to US industry and farmers. This combination of deeply entrenched, change-resistant domestic policies within the US and the EU, together with a pragmatic willingness of both sides to work together to minimize the disruptive effects of persistent regulatory differences, has yielded, not a settlement, but an apparently lasting truce, in the transatlantic “food fight.”

Note: A longer and more detailed version of this paper was previously posted to SSRN as “A Truce in the Transatlantic Food Fight: The United States, the European Union, and Genetically Modified Foods in the Obama Years” (July 12, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Keywords: United States, European Union, genetically modified foods, genetically modified organisms, biotechnology, regulation, risk regulation, World Trade Organization, Codex Alimentarius Commission

Suggested Citation

Pollack, Mark A., International Trade and Risk Regulation: Whatever Happened to the Transatlantic Gmo Conflict? (2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper, American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting, Available at SSRN:

Mark A. Pollack (Contact Author)

Temple University - Department of Political Science ( email )

461 Gladfelter Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States

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