by Lori Wallach
May 15, 2003
The Bush administration announced on May 13 it will formally challenge Europe’s moratorium on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at the World Trade Organization (WTO).
This case will become Exhibit No. 1 in the growing worldwide attack on the WTO’s legitimacy. The fundamental issue here is democracy: The people eating the food or living in the environment that could be affected must decide domestic policy, not some secretive WTO tribunal of three trade experts.
Indeed, polling shows that a majority of Europeans and Americans want GMO foods to be segregated from non-GMO foods and labeled so that consumers have a choice. The science on the long-term health and environmental effects of GMOs is incomplete, making limits on GMOs a prudent policy to avoid possibly irreversible damage to public health or the environment. Many U.S. laws, such as our drug approval process, also require the manufacturer to prove a product safe before it is allowed on the market (not that the government must prove it is dangerous).
Europeans who don’t want to eat GMOs or fear GMO crops’ environmental threats have democratically enacted these values and passed a policy to segregate and label food made with GMOs. The moratorium is an interim measure while the individual E.U. countries debate implementation of that policy. Because the Europeans apply these same rules domestically -- in the same manner that they do to imports -- there is no trade discrimination and thus there really is no trade issue here.
However, although there is no trade discrimination in this situation, there is a viable WTO case to be made in attacking the E.U. GMO moratorium. The WTO contains extensive subjective, value-oriented rules constraining signatory countries’ domestic food-safety policies that limit the subject matter, level of protection and design of domestic food safety policies. One such WTO rule puts the burden of proof on countries seeking to regulate a product to show it is dangerous. This WTO rule means that policies based on the Precautionary Principle -- that a manufacturer must show a product safe over the long term before it goes on the market -- are forbidden. The Bush administration today is putting the interests of its agribusiness supporters over many of the values it purports to seek for the world: democracy, accountability and openness.
The Bush administration, and before it, the Clinton administration, have promised the American public that global trade deals will not and cannot undermine domestic laws. Yet time and again this has proved false. Until this GMO food challenge was launched, the focus this year had been on the Bush administration’s sneaky New Year’s Eve attempt to dramatically weaken the popular U.S. "dolphin-safe" tuna labeling regulation in the name of complying with a trade ruling. Now Europeans are seeing GMOs being forced down their throats by the powerful WTO dispute system.
Lori Wallach is director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch (www.citizen.org/trade/).