With the end of the Iraq war, the globalization war is heating up around trade again, this time over the issue of genetically modified food. George W. Bush is once more attacking “Old Europe,” claiming that it is denying food to starving Africans, after several African countries declined US aid in the form of genetically modified food out of concern that it might taint their own crops, thus making them unsalable in Europe. And once again the United States is opposing a United Nations approach, this time in the form of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, signed by more than 100 nations, which establishes rules to regulate GMOs.
Bush’s trade representative, Robert Zoellick, has lodged a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against European policies that favor GMO consumer labeling. Zoellick says he is out of patience with those picky European eaters who spread unfounded fears in the developing world about GMOs. Will America’s independent farmers and consumers be the next to be smeared as “soft on the French”? Not likely, when the question is the right to know what’s in the food you eat.
The debate over corporate globalization prompted a June 1 protest by thousands around the G-8 meetings in Évian, France. That debate will grow louder June 23-25 in Sacramento at a US-sponsored extravaganza promoting biotechnology and the US corporate agenda in advance of fall WTO meetings in Cancún, Mexico, and of officials’ negotiating the FTAA–an extension of NAFTA to Latin America–in Miami. The invitees to Sacramento are trade and agriculture ministers from 180 countries. Critics of corporate dominance of world agriculture will fight for inclusion in the closed official sessions while protesting on the outside.
US officials were stung by sharp criticism at the June 2002 UN meeting in Rome, which called for cutting the number of the world’s hungry in half by 2015, from some 800 million to 400 million. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan wants to double aid to poor nations, but the United States is failing to do its part, committing just 0.13 percent of its gross national product, one-third the level of Europe’s contribution. In addition, the Bush Administration insists that aid recipients accept deregulation and privatization and import GMO food from American farmers and corporations.
“For better or worse, we were right,” is the cryptic summary of US Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman of the past decade’s attempts to force GMOs into the marketplace without consumer labeling or adequate testing. At the California state agricultural agency, which Veneman ran before becoming Bush’s point person on biotechnology, there is still only one staff position to review 350 applications for biotech projects every year.
Veneman, who is hosting the Sacramento conference, is a former director of Calgene (swallowed by Monsanto and now part of Pharmacia), the biotech company that heralded the world’s first genetically altered food, the Flavr Savr tomato. By removing a gene “that hastens the breakdown of tomato flesh,” Calgene promised chemical ripening that would make the flavor last all the way to distant shelves. But then anti-biotech activist Jeremy Rifkin mobilized public opinion, Campbell Soup pulled out of an agreement to use the tomatoes and the Flavr Savr was abandoned.
Like Zoellick, the industry blames consumers for falling for what lobbyists call “environmental technophobia.” US corn exporters like Monsanto claim to lose $300 million annually because of Europe’s resistance to unlabeled GMOs. But the “phobia” grows from the logical suspicion that an industry opposed to labels must have something to hide. Otherwise, why deny consumers a right to informed choice in the marketplace?