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TRADE: WTO Biotech Ruling Reveals Special Interests, Say Critics

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Feb 8 2006 (IPS) - A World Trade Organisation decision that called European safety bans on genetically modified food illegal under its global trade rules could usher in a new phase of potentially hazardous “Frankenfoods” worldwide and further erosion of local protections, say environmental and advocacy groups.

The groups urged the European Union to place human health and environmental safety first and continue to resist allowing imports of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The long-awaited landmark ruling on the EU’s six-year embargo on genetically engineered crops could affect millions of farmers and consumers around the world and billions of dollars in trade.

The United States, the main plaintiff in the case, along with developing nations, whose resistance to GMOs has so far largely hinged on European backing, may now feel confident that they can adopt the GMO technologies and retain access to European export markets.

The U.S. biotech industry had complained that the EU action effectively blocked up to 300 million dollars of potential U.S. agricultural exports annually. The potential of U.S. exports to huge world markets, like India, is far greater.

U.S. biotechnology giants like Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont and Dow Chemical and big agricultural groups such as the National Corn Growers Association strenuously lobbied the George W. Bush administration to bring a formal case before the WTO, challenging the EU’s GMO regulatory system.

The United States is the world’s largest grower of genetically modified crops and seeds, like corn and soybeans, with 96.3 million acres currently under cultivation. Biotech seed sales brought in 2.2 billion dollars last year.

The WTO verdict on the case – filed in 2003 by the United States and some of the countries within its political sphere like Canada, Argentina, Mexico and Egypt – will determine whether EU policies will move beyond the “precautionary principle”, a notion that new technologies, especially those potentially affecting the environment and public health, should be shelved until risks are ruled out.

But analysts and trade watchdog groups are warning that the ruling could now form the basis for challenging other GMO bans in Asian and African countries, which, as members of the WTO, will eventually have to abide by the ruling.

“It’s disappointing that the WTO would seek to override democratic decisions at literally all levels of government,” said Dennis Olson of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Critics of the WTO decision point out that there is already a broad international agreement on how to deal with biotech crops through the United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, adopted in 2000.

The protocol gives each country leeway in regulating genetically modified crops, taking precautionary principles, protecting their farmers and requiring labeling of these crops and food products.

“Now, the WTO’s unelected legal tribunal, at the request of the U.S. government, has chosen to pre-empt a strong democratic international consensus,” Olson added.

Last Thursday a coalition of environmental and consumer groups published the conclusions of the ruling, which has not yet been officially released, saying they wanted to show the world how the Geneva-based WTO was being driven by special interests.

The WTO has come under fire repeatedly by independent analysts and trade watchdog groups who say that the organisation’s panels often look at cases strictly with the purpose of opening markets for trade with little heed to environmental or health goals.

“The WTO should be the last institution to decide what people eat and grow in the fields,” said Alexandra Wandel, of Friends of the Earth Europe.

Right-wing groups and industry organisations here have been waging a campaign to promote genetically modified (GM) foods and discredit environmental groups such as the Centre for Food Safety and the Organic Consumers Association, on the grounds that they stand in the way of using GMOs to feed the world’s hungry and poor.

Last week the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing Washington-based think tank with close ties to the neo-conservative clique in and around the Bush administration, said it is launching a book that defends GM crops because they can save children who suffer from diseases around the world.

Jon Entine, a researcher at the think tank, said in a press advisory that some GM food brands, modified to contain vitamin A for example, remain unutilised because of opposition from environmental and public safety organisations and that those children were the victims of “anti-genetic science advocacy groups”.

Because of such efforts from the U.S. government and the biotech industry, the acreage devoted to GM crops is growing, increasing to 222 million acres last year – one-third was in developing countries.

GMO advocates dangle benefits like a potential increase in agricultural productivity, drought and disease resistant crops, and the reduction of the use of insecticides and herbicides.

Yet despite the initial elation in industry groups and the administration over the WTO ruling, some argue that the victory is not complete.

The Food Products Association, the largest U.S. food and beverage lobbying group, said Wednesday that U.S. companies would still face trade barriers in the European Union such as the requirements for labeling and traceability of foods and animal feed.

“These requirements have established a serious trade barrier that continues to keep many food products enjoyed here in the United States out of the European market,” said Jeffrey Barach, vice-president of the FPA.

Environmental groups say they are still hopeful the ruling will not be as destructive as initially thought. The expansion of GM crops in the U.S. and other major farming countries has been slowing and many consumers say they are turning to “cleaner” and “tastier” organic or traditional foods and crops.

“The U.S. administration and agro-chemical companies brought the case in a desperate attempt to force-feed markets with GMOs,” said Daniel Mittler, of Greenpeace International. “But consumers, citizens and farmers around the world do not want GMOs and this ruling will change none of that.”

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