Behind US Challenge Of Europe On GMOs
News and Updates
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.