June 2003


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Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]>
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Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 4 Jun 2003 10:58:55 -0700
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Throwing Precaution to the Wind
By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Since its founding, critics have complained that the World Trade
Organization (WTO) is designed to strip sovereignty from nations,
removing critical public policy decisions from democratic control.

The world may now be entering an era when those abstract concerns become
concrete in ways that will outrage millions of people -- as well as
imperil efforts to protect human health and the environment.

Last month, the United States announced its intention to file a WTO case
against the European Union over its de facto moratorium on approval of
genetically engineered agricultural crops. Since late 1998, the EU has
not given regulatory approval to any new biotech product. The EU de
facto moratorium is keeping out transgenic seeds sold by Monsanto and
other purveyors of Frankenfoods, whether from the United States, Europe
or elsewhere.

In announcing their intention to file a case, U.S. Trade Representative
Robert Zoellick and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman rhapsodized
about the wonders of biotechnology. But if the United States proceeds
with the case, it won't turn on the merits of biotech.

(That's convenient for the proponents of biotech, because they don't
have good evidence to back up most of their claims. For extensive
deconstruction of the claims of biotech flacks, check out the
January/February 2000 Multinational Monitor and the books and groups
listed in its resources section:

The U.S. legal argument in the WTO case, if it proceeds, will go
something like this: WTO rules require countries to accept food products
unless they can prove them unsafe with a high level of scientific
certainty -- even if their regulatory rules apply equally to foreign and
domestic products. And there isn't scientifically conclusive evidence
that biotech foods are unsafe.

Remarkably, WTO rules place the burden on the regulators to show
something is unsafe.

These rules flip on its head the Precautionary Principle, which places
the burden on the entity introducing a new product into the environment
or food supply to show it is safe. The Precautionary Principle suggests
erring on the side of safety, not recklessness. It is arguably the
single most important concept to guide the world to a sustainable future.

There's a whole lot of subtext to the U.S. challenge to the European
Union moratorium: There's a fight within the EU about whether the
moratorium should be lifted. There are EU rules on labeling of biotech
foods -- requiring foods to be labeled as containing genetically
engineered content unless all ingredients can be traced to show they are
biotech-free -- that the United States on behalf of the biotech industry
opposes. There is a tit-for-tat over an EU WTO case against certain U.S.
tax rules. There's the ongoing tension from the splits over the Iraq
war. There's the increasing problem faced by U.S. farmers, who are
finding countries unwilling to import their genetically engineered
crops. And much more.

But a crucial piece is an effort to crush the Precautionary Principle.

This was articulated in a May report by the National Foreign Trade
Council (NFTC), a business grouping that has been extremely effective in
setting the corporate agenda on trade-related issues -- and then turning
the agenda into law and policy.

"Some societies, such as those within the European Union, embrace the
mindset of precaution," complains the NFTC, "and presume that a product
is severely hazardous until proven 'safe,' thereby effectively requiring
proof of 'zero-risk.' By contrast, other societies, such as the United
States  do not rely on such a broad presumption." In the United States,
"unless a given product is proven 'hazardous,' it is deemed safe,
thereby acknowledging that a certain amount of risk is unavoidable in
every day life."

That characterization overstates the safety bias of the Precautionary
Principle -- it does not require certainty or zero risk or deny that a
certain amount of risk is unavoidable in life -- but it does portray the
basic dichotomy relatively accurately.

The EU rules on biotech are only the most prominent of precautionary
rules that the NFTC argues conflict with WTO rules. Others that the NFTC
say violate WTO provisions include EU rules requiring electronics
manufacturers to take legal responsibility for products at the end of
their consumer life, an EU chemicals strategy (known as "REACH") which
will require chemical manufacturers to safety test their products before
putting them on the market, and a directive prohibiting use in cosmetics
of carcinogenic or mutagenic substances.

The U.S. challenge to the EU's biotech moratorium is designed to invoke
WTO rules to tell the EU that it has ceded its right to pursue such
precautionary initiatives. The same applies to the rest of the world,
and even the United States itself, despite the fact that these
precautionary measures begin to chart the way forward for a sustainable

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor, They are
co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the
Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press;

(c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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