“Secrecy” and “democracy” are not words that usually belong together—especially when it comes to determining rules that will govern the future of our global food system and set regulations for health and safety.
Over the past few years, however, Monsanto, the leading global manufacturer of pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) seeds (or genetically modified organisms; GMOs) and over 600 other multinational corporations have had numerous secretive meetings with the Obama administration and other world trade leaders to draft two major global trade agreements: the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP; including 40-plus countries) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP; the US-EU Free Trade Agreement).
“They are treating these meetings like they are discussing matters of national security with all participants sworn to secrecy and subject to a felony if they disclose information. These are the first trade agreements that have ever been negotiated behind closed doors like this,” says Jaydee Hanson, policy adviser for Center for Food Safety (CFS), a US based consumer advocacy organization. “The only reason to have these discussions in secret is to try to keep consumer groups, and others who oppose their agenda, from doing anything to interfere. These multinationals have not been successful in getting what they want through law or other policies so they want to do it through secret trade agreements.”
In recent years several countries have successfully passed legislation to strengthen regulations on GM crops— including Peru, which was able to win a monumental 10-year moratorium on GMOs in order to protect the country’s vast biodiversity. This was a great victory for sustainable agriculture, but the TTP and TTIP could prohibit this kind of legislation in the future.
Monsanto and other corporate giants are even pushing for provisions to be able to directly sue a country for violations, Hanson adds. “Right now only countries can sure sue other countries in the World Trade Organization’s tribunals, but companies like Monsanto are trying to use these trade agreements to allow companies to sue countries.” It’s critical that everyone worldwide who wants to protect their right to GMO- free food reach out to his or her national governmental leaders to demand transparency in these discussions.
“The TPP and TTIP ‘free’ trade agreements are essentially a corporate coup over our basic democratic freedoms and local democracy,” says Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now!, a US grassroots organization of more than 650,000 farmers and citizens. “The goal here is to intentionally undermine the local and national laws of states so corporations won’t have to bother with the laws passed by elected officials in individual nations.”
The US-EU Pro-GMO Advocates and Arguments.
Through these trade agreements, agribusiness and members of the office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) have taken an aggressive stance toward eliminating what they call “discriminatory non-tariff barriers.” These are code words for any regulation on the sale of genetically engineered seed or food such as GMO labeling laws and GMO crop bans. As USTR Ambassador Ron Kirk said in the Nelson Report briefing in February: “Whether it’s GMOs or other issues, we want to deal with many of these non-tariff barriers that frustrate our trade.”
Some of these frustrations include the EU regulation that requires imports with 0.9 per- cent or higher levels of GMOs to be labeled, which has been called “commercially infeasi- ble requirement” by American Soybean Association (ASA) as well as some pro-GMO US representatives. The ASA claims that EU biotech regu- lations have contributed to a 70 percent drop in total soy- bean export quantity and a 44 percent decrease in soybean export value to the EU over the last 14 years.
With these numbers, it’s easy to understand why the trade is a little frustrated. On the other hand, I would like to point out to Ambassador Kirk that having crops that have not been proven safe for health or the environment mixed into our food supply without proper labeling so we can make informed decisions is much, much more frustrating to the rest of us.
Additionally, on a trip to the EU to promote the TTIP, Senator Max Baucus from Montana said in the Financial Times that he will work at “ensuring that regulatory processes are streamlined and based on sound science… eliminating unfair barriers that keep our agricultural products out of the European market without any scientific justification—for example, blocking genetically engineered crops and beef and pork containing feed additives that have been deemed to be safe [in the US].”
“The sentiment is that if it’s good enough for the United States, then it should be good enough for the rest of the world,” says CFS’s Hanson. Hanson also points out that often the same politicians arguing for “sound science” have cut the science budgets of agencies such as the US Environmental Protection Agency when they have attempted to research alternatives to chemicals or other technologies used in industry or agriculture.
On the EU side, UK Environment Minister Owen Paterson, the UK govern- ment’s newly appointed Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport and the European Commission’s Chief Scientific Advisor Professor Anne Glover are all supporters of GM crops, according to the Alliance for Natural Health International (ANH-Intl). “With politicians and sections of the scientific establishment seemingly desperate to force the British public to drop its resistance to genetically modi- fied (GM) crops, ANH-Intl believes that a genuine debate, with balanced information, is urgently required,” says the ANH-Intl in a recent press release.
“Paterson, Walport and Glover are asking the British public, as well as industry and politicians, to get behind GM crops on their say-so”, says Dr. Robert Verkerk, founder of ANH-Intl. “They seem to expect the public to act like sheep and to simply believe it when governments and government scientists tell them that GM crops are necessary to beat the impending world food crisis. However, they provide little or no evidence to support their case”.
Right now, our governmental leaders are being fed propaganda from pro-GMO interests, while they are not hearing any of the facts from the other side, points out Verkerk.
“Key facts about GM are often not disclosed to the public or politicians. This includes grave concerns about the technology among some of the world’s leading ecologists, the lack of evidence for the potential of GM crops to alleviate hunger or poverty and the absence of evidence for consistent improvements in yields or reduced agricultural inputs.”
In hopes to open up the dialogue, Dr. Verkerk recently wrote an article for the Centenary Issue of the New Statesman, to be circulated to politicians and industry leaders in the UK and throughout Europe. The article explains that great scientific uncertainty exists with respect to both the benefits and risks of GM crop technology, contrary to what the public is often told.
So What Can We Do?
The US Congress and governments throughout the world including the EU Parliament will be voting on these trade agreements soon, with a goal to make everything official by the end of this year. In fact, those working on the agreements in the US are even trying to “fast track” the process, which would take the decision straight to the president and skip the congressional vote.
Government trade officials and industry groups should not be allowed to create these agreements in secret. Hanson points out that there is only one US consumer representative (Rhoda Karpatkin from Consumers Union) who has been in on the conversations. Additionally, he says that many of the USTR staff members may have the conflicts of commitments. For instance, USTR’s Matthew Jaffee used to work as a chemical company
Right now representatives worldwide must hear from all of us. In the US, Food Democracy Now! has created an easy link to voice your opinion: http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/campaigns/.
Citizens of all countries involved in these agreements need to contact their governmental leaders immediately to demand transparency and let them know that health and safety standards should not be compromised in order to increase profits for pro-GMO interests. Companies and organizations also have great power through their consumer groups. It’s time for all of us to reach out on Facebook, Twitter and through any other means possible and ask followers to also contact their representatives.
Let’s make sure they hear our side as well. When the facts about GMOs versus sustainable agriculture compared side by side, we can win the debate. But we must raise our voice so it can be heard in this critical discussion.