Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Sat, 15 May 1999 15:06:38 -0300 (ADT)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: agbiotech and contesting the new world order

Hey y'all,

Barring my report a few weeks ago on a "Frankenfoods" forum in Halifax, the last time I presented an update on biotechnology issues was in March, I believe. Given the incredible pace at which developments are taking place in this field it would not be feasible for me to attempt a comprehensive survey of the elapsed period. Instead I shall concentrate on the subtext of my previous screeds on agricultural biotechnology : its potential for transforming international relations.

International relations falls into the second of two categories of liability associated with genetic engineering : physical and "moral" - to hijack a preferred term of the American New Right - hazards. The immediate corporeal dangers associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have thus far tended to dominate the debate, as is quite understandable. Evidence of harmful effects has already emerged - the 'Lancet' published research on May 09/98 linking recombinant bovine growth hormone to cancer in humans; Arpad Pusztai of the Rowett Research Institute in Scotland found that GM potatoes damaged the immune systems of laboratory rats - and warned that analogous problems could be extrapolated to humans.

The full spectrum of risk associated with genetic engineering cannot be properly ascertained (because - given the number of variables involved - it approaches infinity) but the potential perils which have been shown to exist are frightening indeed. For one : "Monsanto...has admitted that GM crops can cross-breed with native plants, creating hybrids resistant to some weedkillers" (1). Another, more cataclysmic, risk is that ingestion of GMOs may transmit plague-like viruses/bacteria across species barriers - a possibility borne out earlier this year in a controlled experiment by Dutch researchers (2). Then, too - as British geneticist Mae-Wan Ho has observed - genetic engineering is an uniquely perilous enterprise because its products are self-replicating.

Clearly, the foregoing (and allied) considerations are reason enough to resist the agbiotechnology agenda with main strength. However, another aspect of this matter exists which, if less concrete, is no less significant. This dimension - moral hazard, as I have denoted it above - has several constituent elements including (at least) : questions about intellectual property rights; the sanctity of life; and relations of power. Each of these aspects deserves significant attention but in the present review I wish to concentrate on the third.

The United States government and the agbiotech industry alike have divined the enormous leverage to be had from the widespread adoption of GMOs. In the case of corporations it is mostly a matter of securing markets : farmers who plant modified crops become dependent on the original vendor through mechanisms such as "traitor" technology (a modification which prevents the germination of seeds not treated with chemicals manufactured by the seed supplier.) Official US interest seems to be based on the recognition that the substitution of GM crops for natural ones presents an opportunity to control most of the world's food supply - and given that comestibles are one of the most fundamental requirements for sustaining life this affords extraordinary opportunities for global domination.

Still, for all that GMOs offer unprecedented vistas of expansion for transnational corporations and American imperialism, they may yet prove an Achilles heel to these same forces. In previous AntWire bulletins I have commented on the lack of attention agbiotech has received from mainstream Canadian newsmedia, and the consequently distorted impression within this country of international opinion on the topic. No doubt this has changed somewhat given the significant CBC Radio coverage of GMOs last week but I suspect nonetheless that most Canadians are still unaware that the lack of mobilization on this issue by our populace is quite anomalous internationally.

GMOs have met popular resistance in any number of nations, prompting administrations in Australia, Brazil, Egypt, India, New Zealand and many African and European countries to enact measures against GMOs. Most significant though (given the buying power of their consumers and the political clout of their governments), Japan and the European Union are taking an increasingly dim view of GMOs.

In the EU particularly anti-GMO actions have come from all sectors of society and have involved both demotic and official undertakings. A complete catalogue of steps taken is beyond the scope of this review but to provide some conception of what has transpired :

Americans and Canadians, the major growers of GMOs, can hardly regard with equanimity the prospect of being shut out of the EU (which takes 40% of the US soybean crop) or Japan (which accounts for about 20% of all US agricultural exports.) Yet, not only have measures such as those enumerated above already made matters difficult for GMO producers but still harsher treatment appears to be on the way. To take one example : the European Parliament recently voted to introduce severe restrictions on agbiotech, including stern liability terms for agbiotech firms the products of which were found to cause harm (though to date the European Commission has resisted this legislation.)

This means a showdown is likely. Foreseeing the dangers of such a confrontation Willy De Greef, a top executive of Swiss life sciences giant Novartis, last month counselled Monsanto and its backers on Capitol Hill to adopt a more conciliatory approach - e.g., allowing labelling of genetically altered foodstuffs (3). However, as I have previously argued (4), it is probably safe to assume that the Americans will redouble, not mitigate, their aggression.

For one thing, whatever the long-term strategic desirability of converting Third World agriculture to production of GMOs, in the present these countries are too impoverished to serve as adequate markets. In the wake of its major campaign of corporate acquisitions last year Monsanto is quite heavily leveraged. This leaves the company little choice but to forge ahead with expansion in the developed countries if the cambists are not to draw out their knives and savage it on the stock exchange; and - as American biotech's bellwether and the darling of the White House - what Monsanto wants, Monsanto generally gets. Another consideration is that it would simply be uncharacteristic of the monstrous hubris that the US has displayed since the end of the Cold War for Washington not to attempt to impose its will.

Indications of intransigence have already materialized. For instance, James Hershey, a senior officer of the America Soybean Association, told an audience at the Canada Grains Council's 30th annual conference last month that demands for labelling of GMOs are "significant regulatory threats" (5). Interestingly he also called for the US to put biotechnology on the agenda at the proposed "Millenium Round" of talks at the World Trade Organization...and - wouldn't you know it? - the US and Canada announced last week that they were doing just that. Lest there be any doubt, the gist of Hershey's scheme, and of the US/Canada Millenium plan, is to enact WTO disciplines which would sharply circumscribe national government's ability to regulate GMOs.

On the other side the European Union also looks likely to stay the course. Sentiment is already running high as a result of the recent dispute with the US over bananas, where the EU was forced by the WTO to abandon its preferential treatment of former colonies - and was hit with an indemnity into the bargain. Undeterred by this reversal - indeed, undoubtedly spurred on by it - the EU has chosen to ignore a WTO ruling which requires the Union to accept US and Canadian beef which has been treated with synthetic hormones. This case is obviously of great moment in a region where "mad cow disease" is a matter of recent memory.

In the current dispute, limited as it is to one commodity, there is a possibility that a deal can be brokered which would see the EU accede to compensatory US and Canadian tariffs on goods of their choosing in return for the privilege of blocking hormone-treated beef. However, such a compact would run directly counter to the free trade motif which is the sine qua non of the WTO. This would set a very awkward precedent and thus could only be contemplated as a last resort.

If intead the US (and Canada) continue to press the Europeans on this point, and on agbiotech generally, I would wager that the EU will grow ever more obdurate on the subject. Greece has called for a complete moratorium on GMOs throughout the Union and the chances of such a ban only increase with each new attempt by Monsanto's team to force GMOs down throats (as it were); and should the EU bring down such an interdiction there can be no question that the US will challenge the moratorium before the WTO.

Opinions are divided on what verdict the WTO would render in the event of a dispute of this sort. The trade body's past record - notably the aforementioned beef cattle suit - strongly suggests a finding in favor of GMO producers, but Jean Halloran of the Consumers Union, a prominent US non-governmental group, has argued that World Health Organization guidelines could be used to successfully defend a ban (6).

As I see it, if the EU indeed brought in a moratorium, and if it was challenged at the WTO, there could be no bad result for opponents of GMOs. If the WTO were to uphold a ban this would break the monomaniacal "free trade" orientation of the institution, opening the way for a saner and more balanced approach to international relations. Should the WTO rule against the ban even commentators from the biotech industry (such as Willy de Greef of Novartis) agree that public opinion in the EU is so firmly anti-GMO that these products would be embargoed nonetheless. The diminished prestige of the WTO consequent upon such an outcome would presumably enlarge the ambit of policymakers in, at any rate, the more powerful countries. While a return to an expanded role for national governments may in itself be no cause for rejoicing (given the abysmal records of many of the same) here, too, one might hope that the spectacle of politicians favoring (however cynically) health and environmental concerns over corporate interests might inaugurate a shift away from the neoliberal credo that "if you free up trade, wellbeing will follow."

The new world order is premised on a philosophy of growth without limits; as John McMurtry of the University of Guelph has admonished, this is the way of the cancer cell (7). In the body politic, as in a living body, cancer is a mortal peril : accordingly, the overthrow of this ideology is both a moral imperative and a naked question of survival.

If it is accepted that this creed (whether it be known as neoliberalism, globalisation, laissez-faire or what-have-you) must be undone, the obvious question becomes "how?". Such is the ubiquity of this world-view that any success in opposing its specific effects is inevitably counterpoised by some new, virulent outbreak. Not only are the institutional resources at the service of this ideology of Olympian magnitude but the creed itself has become so pervasive that even its detractors are often at a loss to imagine any other system.

Yet, without in the least wishing to dispute the scope of the challenge which confronts us, I would suggest that opponents of neoliberalism have too often compounded the task by pursuing unfruitful strategies. In particular I believe that it is feckless to champion a competing economic program as an alternative to the oligopoly capitalism which now rules the world. I say this not only because the intellectual hegemony of neoliberalism is too great to be overcome in the foreseeable future (failures of the system are repeatedly ascribed to an insufficiently rigourous application of the neoliberal model, thus precluding effective criticism) but also because the idea of subordinating all social relations to the economic sphere is barbaric and - at this stage of industrial development - frankly suicidal. Wealth was once conceived of as a means of securing personal welfare but in the affluent nations, and within the elites in developing countries, it has long since become an end in itself. If life itself is not to be extinguished in the next century this must cease.

Wealth creation ought not to be seen as an end in itself - one to which concern for all other aspects of culture and for the natural world can only be permitted to the extent that such desiderata do not impinge on commerce - but as a possible means to the ends of sustaining and enhancing life. As such it is not reformation or even replacement of an economic system which is needed but rather the broad rejection of the centrality of economics in policymaking, and its replacement by an ethic of care.

Needless to say this is an enormous project which many would dismiss out of hand as utterly impracticable. I can only say that without such a sea-change I believe that the present is an outrage and the future is without hope.

In my estimation the best chance to break the death-grip of greed is for the forces of globalisation to meet a major reversal apodicticly occasioned by concern for life-affirming values. If I am correct in my assessment the imposition of a moratorium on GMOS in the EU could meet these criteria. This would at once "degrade the offensive capabilities" (as NATO generals are wont to put it) of the institutional apparatus of the new world order and at the same time make manifest that economics need not be the end - in more senses than one - of human societies.



(1) 'Monsanto admits superweed danger,' by Marie Woolf, The Independent, April 25/99.

(2) 'Gut reaction,' by Debora MacKenzie, New Scientist, Jan.30/99.

(3) 'Novartis urges U.S. caution on GMO sales,' Reuters [Washington], April 19/99.

(4) "'The Next "MAI Campaign"?'.

(5) 'ASA director urges pressure for EU acceptance of GMOs,' Resource News International [Winnipeg], April 14/99.

(6) 'US, Canada call for GMO trade on WTO agenda,' BRIDGES Weekly Trade News Digest - Vol. 3, Number 18, 10 May, 1999.

(7) 'The Cancer Stage Of Capitalism,' by John McMurtry, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July/August 1996; Unequal Freedoms, John McMurtry, Garamond Press 1998.