Globalization and GMOs

Globalization and GMOs

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.


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?

In addition to opposing labeling, Veneman is campaigning against any acceptance of the “precautionary principle” by international bodies. The precautionary principle, once endorsed by Bush’s recently departed environmental czar, Christine Whitman, allows countries to regulate pesticides and GMOs on the basis of “better safe than sorry” risk assessments. The principle, embodied in California’s Proposition 65, adopted in 1986, shifts the burden of proof to corporations for proving that a given chemical is not a carcinogen.

As one current example of the dangers of unregulated biotechnology, federal officials are nearing approval of a transgenic species of Atlantic salmon spliced with hormones to make it grow five times faster than normal. (Others have antifreeze genes thrown in to allow them to abide icy ocean water.) That project raises outraged cries from commercial fishermen, who believe the larger Frankenfish will decimate wild species of salmon with their precious genetic inheritance, which has evolved over millennia. Not to miss a buck in the novelty market, there are even plans to create glow-in-the-dark fish and koi that change colors.

Despite the Flavr Savr failure and the Frankenfish scare, the US corporate prescriptions might be taken more seriously if the United States were a model of food security. But 36 million Americans lack enough food, mainly because of poverty.

Food First’s Anuradha Mittal, a lead critic of the Sacramento biotech event, reminds her audiences that the so-called Green Revolution of the 1970s and ’80s may have increased food production but did not reduce the number of starving people if the figures exclude China, which reduced hunger, Mittal said, primarily through state-sponsored land reforms. In some villages in her native India, she says, every farmer has sold a kidney to feed his family, and some, in despair, commit suicide by consuming the pesticides they were told to use on their fields. Mittal is equally cynical about a corporate biotech revolution. The state of Punjab, she laments, produces pet food for Europe and the state of Haryana grows tulips for export to pay off international debts instead of building local agriculture.

Some of the strongest opposition in Sacramento will be from the global South, the very countries the biotech advocates claim to be saving. While some organizations are willing to bow to even more deregulation in exchange for trade niches, the growing consensus among most Southern advocates is that attempts to push GMOs as a condition of food aid (or HIV assistance) should be resisted and any expansion of WTO control prevented. A counterforce to the “Washington consensus” is springing up, especially in Latin America, where 44 percent live in poverty and the number of unemployed workers has doubled in ten years. In Brazil, the million members of the Landless Workers Movement grow their own food–using the precautionary principle–while occupying land in a tacit alliance with the new president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Their example is spreading.

The fight over GMO food is a major part of the battle against US efforts to dictate policy on all aspects of international trade and development. Does the United States have the power to impose trade terms favorable to itself on thirty-four Latin American countries with 800 million people, producing more than $11 trillion in goods and services? That is what will be debated in Sacramento and fought out in Cancún and Miami. Get ready: The empire is being renegotiated.

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