Unfree Trade. "GMOs are Harmless, End of Story"
The United States declaration of unlimited war on terrorism was not the only outcome of the 11 September attacks. Appealing to patriotism also enabled President Bush to squeeze a bill through the House of Representatives, by only 216 votes to 215, giving him trade promotion (formerly called fast track) authority. If the Senate follows suit, the executive will be entitled to negotiate international trade agreements without interference from Congress, which will have no power of amendment. Congress will have to accept or reject the texts as they stand, and outright rejection is unlikely. Without such authority, it is argued, US negotiators lack credibility, as their partners will fear negotiated agreements may be vitiated by Congressional amendments.
With Congress still to take its final decision, the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), held last November in Doha, Qatar, was another slap in the face for the opponents of neo-liberal globalisation and a success for the business lobby. It launched a new round of comprehensive negotiations, called the Doha Development Round, to take over from the Millennium Round that failed in Seattle in December 1999. Of the areas it covered, the environment is probably the most sensitive in the immediate future.
Mention of the environment in the final declaration of the Doha conference was mainly due to pressure from the European Union, backed by Japan, Norway and Switzerland. India was strongly opposed to it, followed by most of the developing countries and the US. But the cost of securing a mention of the environment was very high. This was because of the inclusion of an important rider making the results of future negotiations on compatibility between WTO rules and multilateral environmental agreements binding only on countries that have already signed MEAs - which is reason enough for all countries to follow the example of the US and not sign, or renege. It was also because, totally contradicting the stated aims, there is a risk of the WTO gaining the upper hand over MEAs. And that is just what big businesses, especially biotech firms, hope for.
Pascal Lamy, the European commissioner for trade, shares this perspective. Before the signing of the Doha declaration, he wrote to his friend Robert Zoellick, the US trade representative: "You have informed me of your government's deep concern that Europe might use the negotiations decided on in Doha to justify illegitimate barriers to trade, particularly trade in biotechnological products and application of the commercial clauses of present or future multilateral agreements on biosecurity. As the European Commission's negotiator, I am writing to assure you that will not be the case. I can also assure you I shall not use the negotiations to change the balance of rights and obligations within the WTO with regard to the precautionary principle". (1)
The last sentence speaks volumes. It means that there is no question of the EU calling for the precautionary principle to be strengthened, no question of the EU demanding that the burden of proof in biosecurity be reversed. So any country or group of countries not wishing to import a given product (like the EU and hormone-treated beef) will continue to be required to prove that the product is dangerous. And the exporter will still be exempt from any obligation to prove it is harmless. This was no doubt the return demanded by Washington for its agreement to mention the environment in the declaration.
The EU's capitulation on this issue may soon impact genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Lamy's consideration for the US is not entirely reciprocated. Barely a month after Doha, Zoellick announced that the Bush administration was considering filing a complaint about Europe's alleged delays in authorising imports of new GMOs, and its directives about traceability and labelling.
The EU has effectively maintained a moratorium on the import of new GMOs since 1998. In fact, the measures on traceability and labelling put to the EU council and the European parliament last July, not yet implemented, are the commission's chosen method of opening the door to new imports. By enabling Europe's consumers to choose between products that do or do not contain GMOs, the EU is attempting to make its policy acceptable. But the US remains adamant: it is not prepared to countenance a moratorium or rules on traceability and labelling. GMOs are harmless. End of story. (2)
At present France is the mainstay of the anti-GMO blocking minority in the EU environment council. It is supported by Denmark (but that country could change its approach with the new rightwing government), Greece, Austria, Italy and Luxembourg. This minority is shaky, and against a powerful opponent. On 6 November, just before the Doha conference, 64 of the most influential American agricultural groups and organisations (including Cargill, Monsanto, the Farm Bureau Federation and the Grocery Manufacturers of America), representing billions of dollars in exports, wrote to the secretaries of commerce and agriculture, and to Ambassador Zoellick. Denouncing the precautionary principle and the "illegitimate measures and other technical barriers to trade" applied by the EU, they demanded the government no longer allow the WTO agreements on sanitary and phytosanitary measures and on technical barriers to trade to be flouted.
US patience wearing out
The American agricultural producers' lobby, backed in Washington by the government machinery, claims the EU moratorium has cost $300m in lost profits on maize alone. It is pushing harder because of the alluring prospect of an American monopoly in all GMO agricultural products. Discouraged by protest movements, the big European biotech firms have abandoned agriculture for pharmaceuticals. (3) Speaking in January to a British farming conference in Oxford, US agricultural secretary Ann Veneman claimed that US exports were always based on sound science: "Unfortunately in Europe there is now a competing concept called the precautionary principle, which seems to rest on the premise of the mere existence of theoretical risk. [It] could easily block some of the most promising new agricultural products, especially those based on biotechnology". Her under-secretary of state, Alan Larson, appointed economic adviser to Colin Powell, went further. A week later in Brussels, he warned that America's "patience was wearing out".
The pressure to take the GMO issue to the WTO is mounting. Invoking the earlier judgment against France for its refusal to import British beef during the mad-cow crisis, Larson has proposed the commission refer France and the other countries in the blocking minority to the Court of Justice in Luxembourg: "We have all our options open. This is an issue that presidents, premiers and chancellors must understand is very important to us. Sometimes, if there's behaviour that's both inappropriate and illegal, you've got to confront it. That's the only way you're going to change it". (4)
In January Zoellick sent 14 pages of instructions to US ambassadors throughout the world setting out the arguments to be used in the event of shilly-shallying by WTO member governments, especially the Fifteen. The EU's proposed measures on the traceability and labelling of GMOs, he claims, "are not workable or enforceable, would be very expensive to implement, and would not achieve the stated objectives. [They would] unduly impair trade [and apply] to products that have already been approved for use" - approved by the American authorities, that is. "How will the EU ensure that the authorisation is based on science and not on politics"? (5) This nightmare scenario - which is how the US seems to view democratic decision-making - can be avoided if the US plays its cards right. And the European Commission is there to help it to do so.
On a visit to Washington last October, David Byrne, commissioner for health and consumer protection, anticipated the moratorium would be lifted at the European Council in Barcelona in March. Lamy, on a later trip to the US capital, was more realistic. Swift action on the approval of new GMOs was impossible in the current political climate, he said. The situation would be more propitious "later this year". After the French and German elections?
Tony Van der Haegen, minister-counsellor for agriculture, fisheries and consumer affairs in the European Commission's delegation to the US, seems also to see himself as counsellor to the Americans. He is certainly prepared to let them know what he thinks of his own employer. Van der Haegen has described the EU procedure for taking decisions on the import of new GMOs as an untenable position. This top EU official added that if the US were to file a complaint with the WTO, we would lose. But it is not enough for Van der Haegen to point out the weaknesses in the position he is supposed to defend: he has also explained that the Americans would be ill-advised to file a complaint on traceability and labelling with the WTO, because, if it lost, "it would further undermine confidence in the WTO among the US Congress and the public, and if it won, the EU would never be able to comply for political reasons. The ensuing dispute would be worse than the beef hormone case". (6)
The Bush administration is fine-tuning its GMO strategy on the strength of this well-informed advice, bearing in mind elections in France and Germany. It does not want a politically explosive WTO case to become an election issue that could fuel the campaigns of anti-biotech forces within the green parties. (7) But it is determined to get its own way in the end.
Translated by Barry Smerin
1. Letter from Lamy to Zoellick, Doha, 14 November 2001, quoted in Inside US Trade, Arlington, vol 19, no 4, 23 November 2001.
2. The products targeted by these proposals include chicory, maize, soya, tomatoes, soya oil, corn oil and rapeseed oil, corn syrups and starches, additives, and animal feed, but not products derived from animals fed on GMOs.
3. See Le Monde, 20-21 January 2002.
4. Quoted in Chris Rugaber, "EU leaders summit in March may decide on lifting of GMO moratorium, officials say", International Trade Reporter, Washington, vol 19, no 2, 10 January 2002.
5. Zoellick's instructions to US ambassadors can be found on the Inside US Trade website under the headline "US criticizes EU biotech rules at WTO", document source USTR, document dated January 2002.
6. Quoted in Chris Rugaber, "US to analyze EU biotech rules, plans WTO submission", International Environment Reporter, Washington, vol 24, no 25, 5 December 2001.
7. See "US pushes EU to restart biotech approvals, loosen regulations", Inside US Trade, vol 19, no 51, 21 December 2001.
Copyright 2002 Le Monde diplomatique