Antoni's Wire Service

Date: Fri, 5 Mar 1999 23:42:14 -0400 (AST)
From: Antoni Wysocki
To: Antoni's Wire Service
Subject: the next "MAI campaign"?


Of late it seems that not a day passes but it brings word of new developments relating to biotechnology. To mention just one : the Friends of the Earth (UK) released a media advisory on Wednesday, March 03/99 dissecting a leaked government memorandum. The secret report on genetically engineered provender, prepared expressly for Tony Blair's Cabinet, includes such embarrassing items as :

If environmental damage is shown to occur, how much do we tolerate as a justifiable cost? Or do we believe that any damage should justify a halt? (The latter is unlikely to be true but will be difficult in presentational terms). -

Unless I miss my guess, with the increasing furore around issues of biotechnology we have the makings of a global campaign on the order of that against the MAI.

While such speculation may appear implausible in light of the near invisibility of the subject in mainstream Canadian newsmedia one must consider the centrality of biotechnology in policy debates in the European Union and elsewhere. It is startling to realize just how sharply drawn the sides are becoming : supported by a thinning list of cronies (principally Canada and Argentina now that Brazil and the UK have begun to move against genetically modified crops) the US is dramatically exposed as the heavyhanded champion of rapacious multinational firms. Meanwhile, popular movements in countries around the world - increasingly abetted by their governments - are strenuously resisting this new imperialism. The recklessness of Washington and its fellow travellers - their thuggish attempts to push an unwanted package of potentially catastrophic products which offer only the vaguest promise of future benefit - could scarcely be more apparent.

I would argue that the struggle against the MAI was based on two main perceptions : (a) the treaty would have had harmful "real world" effects (e.g. propelling a "race to the bottom" in labor and environmental standards); (b) the treaty would have derogated democracy by transferring legal power to unaccountable corporations at the expense of elected officials. In addition to the observations made in the preceding paragraph on the international character - and straightforward "good guy/bad guy" demarcation - of the biotechnology imbroglio, I would submit that the matter likewise parallels the MAI issue in terms of the concerns cited immediately above.

Taking (b) first : under the most conservative formulation at least the present palette of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can only be seen to serve the interests of Monsanto and its corporate brethren. The Terminator, which forces farmers to buy seed anew every year from Monsanto, or Roundup, which compels them to use only Monsanto pesticides, cannot plausibly be explained as helping feed the starving masses. Accordingly the insistence of the US on using any means available to stymie legislators overseas who try, in accordance with the express wishes of their citizenry, to regulate GMOs, must be understood as a drive to remove regulatory control from the hands of the peoples' representatives with a view to making multinational capital de jure, as well as de facto, controller of the world.

In consideration of (a), while the MAI was more comprehensive in its subject matter GMOs constitute a "clear and present danger" greatly in excess of the treaty. The MAI might eventually have led to, say, increased ecological degradation as governments, fearing the investor-to-state dispute resolution mechanism, left polluters to do their worst; but the dissemination of a deadly GMO-borne ailment on a global scale is an imminent possibility (though its likelihood is, of course, impossible to determine.)

As I reported in 'February round-up on GMOs', a recent AntWire posting, the US, acting through Canada and a handful of other partners-in-crime, blocked the effort to create a multilateral Biosafety Protocol. One of the grounds for this maneuver was the insistence that World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments had to be accorded priority. As the original premise of the Biosafety Protocol was that it would trump all other international obligations, for the great majority of negotiating states this clause was obviously a non-starter (as it was meant to be.)

With the Biosafety Protocol scuttled WTO disciplines remain paramount in respect of the regulation of GMOs. This could come into play in a number of ways in the near future. One is the European Union (EU) ban on artificial hormone in milch cows, up for review in 2000. It is thought that if the EU interdict continues that the US will challenge it in the WTO on the grounds that there is insufficient scientific evidence of the substance's harm to permit a ban. The US has already successfully employed this argument in a similar dispute with the EU over treatment of beef cattle.

Another avenue may have opened up as a result of a recent undertakingin the United Kingdom. The Guardian has reported that, "[g]enetically modified food is to be taken off the menu in schools, old people's homes and town halls" ('GM foods off school menus', by Lucy Ward and Sarah Hall, Guardian Weekly for March 1-7).

This decision was taken by the Local Government Association of England and Wales (though presumably not Scotland and Ulster) in consideration of potential health risks to those under its care. As they may or may not know, under WTO rules the sole acceptable criterion for government procurement is performance (the State of Masschussetts ran afoul of this article when it enacted a selective purchasing law with regard to Burma.)

It will be interesting to see if such actions are initiated in the WTO. The current US-EU dispute over bananas has already called the WTO's viability into some question : the Americans' propensity for unilateral trade sanctions is being challenged in the WTO by the Europeans. It is believed that if, as seems likely, the ruling goes against the US that it will ignore the verdict which would obviously jeopardize the entire system (though, to be sure, the most likely prospect is a backroom compromise before matters come to such a pass.)

In such a climate should the US (and/or Canada) contest another nation's anti-GMO legislation, and should the WTO (as it would surely would) find against the biotechnology bucker, it is quite possible that the "offending" party would refuse to back down, which would drastically undermine the neoliberal project as embodied in the WTO. This possibility is in fact contemplated in the secret memo circulated by the FOE, viz. :

How real is the risk of a trade war with the Americans on GM foods? Do we need to do a risk analysis of this issue and a consideration of how we should react?

If, on the other hand, the nation found at fault meekly agreed to rescind its anti-GMO laws this would presumably lead to domestic political crisis as the public realized once and for all that the present world order is designed to place effective policymaking beyond the control of democratically elected governments. Should this latter scenario come to pass it is conceivable that there could be a genuine and widespread revolt against the neoliberal paradigm.