By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
Since its founding, its critics have complained that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is designed to strip nations of their sovereignty, stealing fundamental public policy decisions from democratic control.
The world may be entering an era in which these abstract concerns are being realized in ways that will outrage millions of people, while jeopardizing efforts to protect human health and the environment.
Last month, the United States announced its intention to denounce the European Union to the WTO for the suspension it has effectively imposed on the approval of genetically modified agricultural products. Since late 1998, the European Union has not given regulatory approval to any new biotechnology products. This de facto suspension of the EU prevents entry into the Union of all transgenic seeds sold by Monsanto and other suppliers of 'Frankenfoods', be they from the United States, Europe or elsewhere.
In announcing their intention to file the lawsuit, Robert Zoellick and Ann Veneman, US Commerce Representative and Secretary of Agriculture, respectively, sang the excellencies and wonders of biotechnology. But if the United States goes ahead with the lawsuit, it will not depend on the merits of biotechnology (which is handy for biotech advocates, because they don't have strong evidence to back up most of their claims. For a thorough deconstruction of claims of biotech propagandists, read the January and February 2000 issue of Multinational Monitor and the books and groups listed in the resources section: http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/mm2000/mm0001.00 .html)
The legal argument that the United States will make before the WTO, if it goes ahead, will go something like this: WTO rules require countries to accept food products unless they can show that they are dangerous with a high degree of scientific certainty, including if its regulatory standards apply equally to foreign and domestic products. And there is no conclusive scientific evidence that biotech foods are dangerous.
What is surprising is that WTO rules place the burden of proof on regulators, who must show that something is dangerous.
These standards flip the precautionary principle, which imposes the burden of proof on the entity introducing a new product into the environment or food supply, which must demonstrate that it is safe.
The precautionary principle is inclined to sin out of safety and not out of recklessness. It is possibly the most important concept to guide the world towards a sustainable future.
There is a whole background to the questioning by the United States of the suspension of the European Union: there is the fight within the EU over whether to lift the suspension. There are the EU rules on biotech food labeling - which require labels to specify that the food has genetically modified content unless tracking all ingredients back to their origin shows that they are free of such modifications - a those opposed by the United States on behalf of the biotech industry. There's a tit-for-tat of an EU lawsuit before the WTO against certain US tax rules. There is the tension coming from the cracks opened by the war in Iraq. There is the growing problem facing US farmers, who are encountering countries that are unwilling to import their genetically modified agricultural products. And much more.
But a crucial piece is the effort to end the precautionary principle, articulated in a May report by the National Council for Foreign Trade, a business group that has been extremely effective in setting the agenda of large companies on trade issues. and then turn the agenda into law and policy.
“Some societies, such as those encompassed by the European Union, have a precautionary mentality - complains the Council - and presume that a product is seriously dangerous until its 'safety' is proven, which in fact requires proof of "zero risk". In contrast, other societies, such as the United States, are not based on such a general assumption. " In the United States, "Unless a certain product is shown to be 'dangerous', it is considered to be safe, thereby recognizing that there is a certain amount of unavoidable risk in everyday life."
Although this characterization exaggerates the tendency to the safety of the precautionary principle, which does not demand certainty or zero risk, nor does it deny that a certain amount of risk is inevitable in life, it does portray the basic dichotomy with relative accuracy.
The EU rules on biotechnology are only the most prominent precautionary rules that, according to the US National Foreign Trade Council, conflict with the WTO rules.
Other rules that the Council says violate WTO provisions include the EU rules requiring electronics manufacturers to take legal responsibility for end-of-life products, an EU chemical strategy (known as "REACH") that will require manufacturers of chemical products to test the safety of their products before placing them on the market, and a directive that prohibits the use in cosmetics of carcinogenic or mutagenic substances.
The United States' challenge to the European Union's suspension of biotechnology is designed to invoke WTO rules to tell the EU that it has given up its right to pursue these precautionary measures. The same applies to the rest of the world, and even the United States itself, even though these precautionary measures are beginning to point the way to a sustainable world.
Translation for The Badge of Bern Wang - The Badge
* - Russell Mokhiber is editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, based in Washington, D.C.
- Robert Weissman is editor of the Multinational Monitor, based in Washington, D.C.
They are both co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine, Common Courage Press, 1999).
(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
(c) from the translation: Berna Wang, 2003.
Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman - Focus on the Corporation. USA - Translation for The Bern Wang Badge