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Behind US challenge of Europe on GMOs

by Kristin Dawkins
Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy

(Tuesday, June 10, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- There is more than meets the eye with the recent U.S. legal challenge of the European Union's moratorium on imports of genetically modified (GM) foods. The Bush Administration has touted the action as the salvation of starving people and a defense of U.S. farmers. But the case will accomplish little for either of these groups. Instead, it reveals a struggle between the U.S. and EU over whether the United Nations will remain an enforceable body of international law.

Earlier this week, the EU countered the U.S. challenge by ratifying a UN treaty that strengthens the ability of countries to set their own rules on GM crops. Following disputes within the UN over the war in Iraq, GM foods have now become part of an escalating global showdown over global governance and international institutions.

The question of who should have jurisdiction over regulating GM foods has been the subject of vigorous debate in the international arena for the last decade. The UN has several treaties relevant to GM foods, two of which will likely go into effect later this year. Both treaties would undermine the U.S. attempt to force Europe into accepting biotech foods through the World Trade Organization (WTO) - where the legal complaint was filed last month. Both UN Treaties are the result of multilateral negotiations supported by more than 100 other nations, not just Europe.

At the 1999 WTO Ministerial in Seattle the U.S. attempted to ram through a provision that would have deregulated trade in GM foods worldwide. Other countries blocked the effort, however, and made clear that the proper place for addressing biosafety issues was within the UN system. Four years later, the UN-initiated Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is about to become binding international law.

The Cartegena Protocol, agreed to by 131 countries in Montreal in 2000, establishes an international regulatory regime based on the precautionary principle to manage the unique risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The rights of national governments to regulate all GMOs are affirmed, while developing countries may use the Protocol to regulate commodities even before national policies are in place. Environmental, human health and socio-economic factors are recognized as valid considerations in determining whether to accept or reject GMO imports. Throughout eight years of these negotiations, the U.S. attempted to block each of these aspects of the final treaty.

The Protocol will become enforceable once 50 nations ratify it through their domestic legislative processes. Already, 49 have done so. The EU ratified it earlier this week - opening the door for other EU member nations to approve the treaty. The U.S., however, has made it clear it has no intention of joining the protocol, despite the fact that those who do participate may choose not to trade in GMOs with countries that do not.

Another UN treaty that will impact genetically engineered crops is the "International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture" adopted in November 2001. This treaty, negotiated through the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, was adopted by a vote of 116-0 with two abstentions - the United States and Japan. This treaty needs 40 nations to formally join before it goes into affect, also likely to occur later this year or early in 2004. Currently, 19 countries have done so.

The Genetic Resources Treaty establishes a multilateral system providing un-patented general access to seeds and germplasm for much of the world's food supply, as well as fair and equitable sharing of the benefits obtained from their use. It also includes a provision on farmers' rights to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed - all prohibited practices for farmers growing biotech crops in the U.S.

The implications of whether the UN or WTO will become the dominant regime for regulating GM foods extend beyond GM foods themselves. Fundamentally, this battle is also about the rights of nations to set up their own regulatory systems to protect human health and the environment. Instead of working through the UN to set an international floor of minimum standards that must be met around the world, the U.S. is pushing for a ceiling at the WTO which would restrict nations from setting more rigorous safety standards.

U.S. farmers are becoming pawns in this game as well. The WTO legal challenge will likely strengthen Europe's resolve against GM foods. Even if the U.S. wins a lengthy legal challenge, Europe will likely pay a fine rather than change their policies - as they have with beef raised with hormones. The Soybean Producers of America recently criticized the Bush Administration for antagonizing Europe, their biggest trading partner - and expressed hope that the dispute won't hurt soybean exports.

The WTO legal challenge over GM foods represents the Bush Administration's commitment to an institution that puts commerce ahead of all other considerations. The EU's ratification of the Biosafety Protocol, along with a recent proposal by African governments at the WTO to ban the patenting of seeds and other life forms, places a higher priority on public health, farmers’ rights, food security and the environment. At stake is our system of global governance and whose interests it will represent.

Kristin Dawkins is the Vice President for Global Programs at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. She is the author of the book Gene Wars, and the upcoming book Global Governance.

Related items:

  • Farmers privilege under attack, a report from GRAIN; http://www.grain.org/publications/bio-ipr-fp-june-2003-en.cfm

  • U.S. soybean farmers question trade rep's remarks: 'This is not how we should treat our best customers'; http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=1686

  • Globalization and GMOs

    (Tuesday, June 10, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Tom Hayden, The Nation: With the end of the Iraq war, the globalization war is heating up around trade again, this time over the issue of genetically modified food. George W. Bush is once more attacking "Old Europe," claiming that it is denying food to starving Africans, after several African countries declined US aid in the form of genetically modified food out of concern that it might taint their own crops, thus making them unsalable in Europe. And once again the United States is opposing a United Nations approach, this time in the form of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, signed by more than 100 nations, which establishes rules to regulate GMOs.

    Bush's trade representative, Robert Zoellick, has lodged a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against European policies that favor GMO consumer labeling. Zoellick says he is out of patience with those picky European eaters who spread unfounded fears in the developing world about GMOs. Will America's independent farmers and consumers be the next to be smeared as "soft on the French"? Not likely, when the question is the right to know what's in the food you eat.

    The debate over corporate globalization prompted a June 1 protest by thousands around the G-8 meetings in Évian, France. That debate will grow louder June 23-25 in Sacramento at a US-sponsored extravaganza promoting biotechnology and the US corporate agenda in advance of fall WTO meetings in Cancún, Mexico, and of officials' negotiating the FTAA--an extension of NAFTA to Latin America--in Miami. The invitees to Sacramento are trade and agriculture ministers from 180 countries. Critics of corporate dominance of world agriculture will fight for inclusion in the closed official sessions while protesting on the outside.

    US officials were stung by sharp criticism at the June 2002 UN meeting in Rome, which called for cutting the number of the world's hungry in half by 2015, from some 800 million to 400 million. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wants to double aid to poor nations, but the United States is failing to do its part, committing just 0.13 percent of its gross national product, one-third the level of Europe's contribution. In addition, the Bush Administration insists that aid recipients accept deregulation and privatization and import GMO food from American farmers and corporations.

    "For better or worse, we were right," is the cryptic summary of US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman of the past decade's attempts to force GMOs into the marketplace without consumer labeling or adequate testing. At the California state agricultural agency, which Veneman ran before becoming Bush's point person on biotechnology, there is still only one staff position to review 350 applications for biotech projects every year.

    Veneman, who is hosting the Sacramento conference, is a former director of Calgene (swallowed by Monsanto and now part of Pharmacia), the biotech company that heralded the world's first genetically altered food, the Flavr Savr tomato. By removing a gene "that hastens the breakdown of tomato flesh," Calgene promised chemical ripening that would make the flavor last all the way to distant shelves. But then anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin mobilized public opinion, Campbell Soup pulled out of an agreement to use the tomatoes and the Flavr Savr was abandoned.

    Like Zoellick, the industry blames consumers for falling for what lobbyists call "environmental technophobia." US corn exporters like Monsanto claim to lose $300 million annually because of Europe's resistance to unlabeled GMOs. But the "phobia" grows from the logical suspicion that an industry opposed to labels must have something to hide. Otherwise, why deny consumers a right to informed choice in the marketplace?

    In addition to opposing labeling, Veneman is campaigning against any acceptance of the "precautionary principle" by international bodies. The precautionary principle, once endorsed by Bush's recently departed environmental czar, Christine Whitman, allows countries to regulate pesticides and GMOs on the basis of "better safe than sorry" risk assessments. The principle, embodied in California's Proposition 65, adopted in 1986, shifts the burden of proof to corporations for proving that a given chemical is not a carcinogen.

    As one current example of the dangers of unregulated biotechnology, federal officials are nearing approval of a transgenic species of Atlantic salmon spliced with hormones to make it grow five times faster than normal. (Others have antifreeze genes thrown in to allow them to abide icy ocean water.) That project raises outraged cries from commercial fishermen, who believe the larger Frankenfish will decimate wild species of salmon with their precious genetic inheritance, which has evolved over millennia. Not to miss a buck in the novelty market, there are even plans to create glow-in-the-dark fish and koi that change colors.

    Despite the Flavr Savr failure and the Frankenfish scare, the US corporate prescriptions might be taken more seriously if the United States were a model of food security. But 36 million Americans lack enough food, mainly because of poverty.

    Food First's Anuradha Mittal, a lead critic of the Sacramento biotech event, reminds her audiences that the so-called Green Revolution of the 1970s and '80s may have increased food production but did not reduce the number of starving people if the figures exclude China, which reduced hunger, Mittal said, primarily through state-sponsored land reforms. In some villages in her native India, she says, every farmer has sold a kidney to feed his family, and some, in despair, commit suicide by consuming the pesticides they were told to use on their fields. Mittal is equally cynical about a corporate biotech revolution. The state of Punjab, she laments, produces pet food for Europe and the state of Haryana grows tulips for export to pay off international debts instead of building local agriculture.

    Some of the strongest opposition in Sacramento will be from the global South, the very countries the biotech advocates claim to be saving. While some organizations are willing to bow to even more deregulation in exchange for trade niches, the growing consensus among most Southern advocates is that attempts to push GMOs as a condition of food aid (or HIV assistance) should be resisted and any expansion of WTO control prevented. A counterforce to the "Washington consensus" is springing up, especially in Latin America, where 44 percent live in poverty and the number of unemployed workers has doubled in ten years. In Brazil, the million members of the Landless Workers Movement grow their own food--using the precautionary principle--while occupying land in a tacit alliance with the new president, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. Their example is spreading.

    The fight over GMO food is a major part of the battle against US efforts to dictate policy on all aspects of international trade and development. Does the United States have the power to impose trade terms favorable to itself on thirty-four Latin American countries with 800 million people, producing more than $11 trillion in goods and services? That is what will be debated in Sacramento and fought out in Cancún and Miami. Get ready: The empire is being renegotiated.

    This article available at http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20030623&s=hayden