8 Feb 2000
Labelling Rule Sets GM Food Exports Back Several Years
By Gwynne Dyer
Game, set, and match. The Protocol on Biosafety, agreed by 130 countries last Saturday in Montreal afer frantic overtime negotiations, sets the seal on a year that saw genetically modified organisms (GMOs) go from a technology set to sweep the planet to a discredited experiment with a rapidly shrinking future in international trade.
Over the bitter opposition of the United States and a few other GMO-exporting countries (the US, Canada and Argentina account for more than 90% of the world’s GM food crops), the Montreal conference decided that all international shipments of food or seeds that may include GMOs must be labeled as such.
Even more importantly, it agreed that countries can bar imports of such foods on the “precautionary principle” – just because they’re worried about their safety – without breaking international trade rules.
“For the first time, countries will have the right to decide whether they want to import GM products or not when there is less than full scientific evidence,” said British Environment Minister Michael Meacher in Montreal. “It is official that the environment rules aren’t subordinate to to the trade rules. It’s been one hell of a battle.”
So why did the US back down at the last moment? After all, 300kg gorillas usually sit where they want.
A big part of the reason was that the United States has been deeply unpopular on too many other international issues recently. From the 1997 treaty banning land mines, to the 1998 International Criminal Court, to last year’s Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty, the US has been virtually alone among the industrial democracies in refusing to sign.
Washington had already refused to sign the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity that provided the framework for the protocol on biosafety being negotiated in Montreal.
Now it was determined to strangle that protocol in its cradle – manifestly in the service of the interests of US agribusiness. This pattern of behavior has annoyed even America’s closest allies to the point where more and more often they just go ahead without US assent.
If the negotiations in Montreal had broken up inconclusively, many countries would have gone ahead and banned GM imports anyway: consumer pressure to do so would have been irresistible. That might cause a trade war, but it wouldn’t help the American farmers who have fallen for the promises of GM giant Monsanto and its rivals to sell their GM crops abroad.
Besides, the home front is now crumbling; consumer resistance to genetically modified foods is beginning to awaken in North America as well. If you’re going to lose anyway, you might as well lose gracefully.
In the end, after two all-night sessions, US Assistant Secretary of State David Sandlow backed down and accepted the new rules. Companies planning to export GM seeds or crops to other countries will have to inform their governments in advance; they must be labeled; and the governments have the right to refuse the imports on environmental or health grounds – even without conclusive scientific evidence that GM products are dangerous.
It is effectively the death knell for international trade in GM products, at least for five or 10 years, and North American farmers will react fast; this spring’s planting will show a dramatic collapse in the use of GM seeds. It is one of the great public relations disaster stories of all time, for it is all about public perceptions and hardly at all about science.
The one more or less scientific element in the story was British scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai’s August 1998 claim that GM potatoes damaged the immune system of rats, for which he was hounded from his job. But a February 1999 protest by 20 international scientists demanding that Pusztai’s findings be reinstated galvanized popular anxiety about GM foods in Britain.
Within weeks, most of the major British supermarket and fast-food chains were promising to phase out all products with GM ingredients as fast as possible, and the revolt against GM foods was apreading like wildfire in the rest of Western Europe.
To some extent Europeans were hypersensitive because of other recent food scares, but a critical element in the response was European resentment at the incredibly naive and arrogant strategy adopted by Monsanto, and loyally enforced by the American and Canadian Governments.
North American producers deliberately mixed GM and non-GM products in their food exports, while their Governments threatened legal action under international free trade legislation if the export markets tried to bar shipments containing GM material, or even to label them GM.
It did amount to shoving the stuff down people’s throats. They were bound to be resentful, and suspicious, too.
By May, Europe’s biggest bank, Deutsche Bank, was warning (in a report titled GMOs Are Dead) that “increasingly, GMOs are . . . a liability to farmers.” By July it was bluntly warning large institutional investors to unload their shares in companies involved in the development of GMOs.
Meanwhile, Third World governments that foresaw millions of peasant farmers being driven off their lands by the high capital requirements of farming with GM seeds were making common cause with European governments worried about consumer safety.
The result was the coalition that basically killed he GM revolution in Montreal last Saturday. And the lesson is not that GMOs are a menace to human health, genetic stability in other plants, or the welfare of poor peasants (though they may be all of those things). It is that arrogance makes people stupid.