Multinational Monitor

JAN/FEB 2000
VOL 21 No.


Don’t Ask, Don’t Know: The Biotech Regulatory Vacuum
by Ben Lilliston

Down on the Farm: Farmers Get The Biotech Blues
by Michael Stumo

The View From Wall Street
by Charlie Cray

The International Food Fight: From Seattle to Montreal
by Kristin Dawkins

In The Pipeline: Genetically Modified Humans?
by Richard Hayes


Traitor and The New Life Science Industry
An Interview with Pat Mooney

Changing the Nature of Natures
An Interview with Martin Teitel


Behind the Lines

The Biotech Challenge

The Front
Monsanto Sued - Corporate Welfare Challenged

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


The International Food Fight: From Seattle to Montreal

by Kristin Dawkins

Disputes over biotechnology and the patenting of life would be "the Battle Royale of twenty-first century agriculture," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman proclaimed in 1997.

In Seattle during the closing month of the twentieth century, the United States and its cohort of fellow exporters of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) fired their biggest fusillade yet in this battle and found that it fizzled. Not only did the World Trade Organization (WTO) fail to launch a new round of trade talks, but proposals that the WTO give special consideration to biotechnology issues failed to gain anything near consensus support. The defeat of the U.S. gambit at Seattle could boost efforts to negotiate a legally binding Biosafety Protocol under the United Nations-based Convention on Biological Diversity. [See "Unsafe in Any Seed: U.S. Obstructionism Defeats Adoption of An International Biotechnology Safety Agreement," Multinational Monitor, March 1999].

The United States, the world's leading grain exporter, also leads the world in growing genetically modified crops. But consumers in Europe, Japan and elsewhere strongly object to GMOs in the food supply, and Europe is maintaining a de facto ban on the import or sale of GMO seeds and foods. Meanwhile, many developing countries are promoting the idea that there should be no patents, or at least no requirement for patents, on lifeforms. They are also pushing to ensure the rules of a Biosafety Protocol not be subject to WTO dictates. The U.S. mission in Seattle was to use the WTO to fend off these threats to a future in which GMO exports solidify the dominant U.S. position in the world grain market.

Working on Biotech in Seattle

In Seattle, the United States joined Canada and Japan in proposing a WTO "Working Party on Biotechnology" whose mandate was unclear. The United States wanted it "to examine approval processes" for GMOs -- taking aim at the European Union's array of national and regional restrictions on the import, planting and consumption of genetically engineered seeds and foods. Japan proposed that a WTO Working Party look at the benefits of GMOs as well as health and environmental concerns, whether the WTO's existing agreements apply to GMOs, and how the WTO might appropriately deal with other international fora where GMOs are discussed (such as the Biosafety Protocol negotiations). Canada's proposal was for the WTO to assess the adequacy of existing rules and the capacity of WTO members to implement them.

In response to these proposals, a large number of developing countries objected to any WTO working party on biotechnology whatsoever -- largely on grounds that the Biosafety Protocol is the proper way to negotiate international GMO policy. And this "Like-Minded" group of developing countries stood firm in Seattle. Although the final version of the draft WTO Ministerial Declaration issued prior to the talks' suspension contained what was essentially the Canadian proposal for a Working Party on Biotechnology, it was still in brackets. (In international negotiations, proposals in brackets are still in dispute.)

The Like-Minded countries' firmness took on heightened importance due to the surprising EU capitulation to U.S. demands. The Europeans' role in negotiating the biotech issue in Seattle generated a storm of protest with implications for the future of European Union politics. On December 1, it was learned that Commissioner Pascal Lamy, the lead negotiator for the EU, had voiced EU support for a Working Party without checking with individual European country delegations. Within hours, five European environmental ministers -- from Denmark, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France and Italy -- issued a press advisory objecting to Lamy's position. Farm, consumer and environmental groups also lashed out at Lamy, claiming he had exceeded his mandate as Commissioner. Later that night, 15 European trade ministers joined the chorus of objections.

Lamy defended his support for the WTO Working Party on Biotechnology on the grounds that complex negotiations require trade-offs. "My job as a negotiator is how to get the maximum," he said. "I have to spend money to get money. I don't find it a problem if I can get what I need. ... At the end of the day, the Council [of Ministers] will make their decision" whether or not to approve the package deal.

For Europeans, this issue has special significance, given that their ban on imports of beef laced with growth hormones has been attacked by the United States as a "barrier to trade" which is not "scientifically justifiable." The EU has defended its ban on hormone-treated beef, as well as its GMO policies, on the grounds that the precautionary principle should prevail over free trade. In other words, given substantial uncertainty about the safety of genetically engineered foods, countries should not be forced to place them on the market. After years of deliberation, however, the WTO dispute resolution panel and appellate body agreed with the United States, authorizing U.S. trade sanctions against Europe unless the ban was lifted.

European consumers are so adamant about not eating hormone-treated beef that the EU chose to accept the sanctions rather than drop the ban. As a result, a wide variety of European products -- mostly high quality luxury goods -- are hit with extra high tariffs when they enter the U.S. market. Roquefort cheese, for example, now costs $38 per pound in the United States.

The stakes are much higher in the U.S.-EU dispute over biotech foods, which is set to erupt in a major WTO conflagration unless the negotiators of the Biosafety Protocol succeed in finalizing terms for GMO regulation worldwide. In the Biosafety Protocol talks, the EU has considered the precautionary principle a non-negotiable clause in the draft text and insisted on a so-called "savings clause" affirming that in cases of potential harm, the terms of the Protocol would over-ride other international obligations. And, until Lamy's about-face, the EU's position in Seattle had been that biotechnology should be dealt with by the United Nations through the Biosafety Protocol, not by the WTO at all.

Preserving Life Patents

The other flank of the biotech Battle Royale waged in Seattle -- regarding patents on life -- was less dramatic but no less significant. In this case, the African Group led the charge, drafting text for the Seattle Ministerial Declaration that would have banned patents on all living organisms and their parts. These terms would require revisions of the present Uruguay Round Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPs). The developing countries also made proposals to address the issue of "biopiracy" and food security, calling for trade rules to "ensure the protection of innovations of indigenous and local farming communities; the continuation of traditional farming processes including the right to use, exchange and save seeds, and promote food security."

Led by the United States, governments interested in supporting the agri-chemical-pharmaceutical sector that benefits from the exclusive marketing rights that a patent normally confers succeeded in watering down these proposals. The last version of the draft Ministerial text to emerge in Seattle would have required WTO members merely to "examine, in cooperation with other relevant intergovernmental organizations, the scope for protection -- relating to traditional knowledge and folklore -- and other legal means and practices, both national and international." The suspension of talks in Seattle leaves these issues unresolved. Bienniel reviews of TRIPs are built into the Uruguay Round agreement, however, so developing countries may be able to build on the small momentum in Seattle to pursue more significant reforms in the future.

The Future of Biosafety

While the WTO and its various authorities dicker over how to proceed post-Seattle, the next meeting of the Biosafety Protocol negotiations takes place in late January in Montreal. These talks were stalemated last February in Cartagena, Colombia, when the United States and five other GMO grain-exporters refused to allow the Protocol to include genetically engineered grains in its scope. However, the "after-Seattle" political context may be markedly different. There are a number of reasons why the negotiating dynamic in Montreal now offers more promise for a successful conclusion.

First, as a result of the Seattle failure, the WTO has no mandate to negotiate beyond the "built-in agenda," which does not include biotechnology; the efforts of the United States and other countries to create a biotech working party failed. These developments reinforce the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) mandate to conclude a Biosafety Protocol establishing binding international rules governing the transfer, handling and use of all GMOs.

Second, the astonishingly open division in Seattle between European Commission negotiator Pascal Lamy and the EU member country delegates over Europe's strategy at the WTO has elevated the importance of achieving a multilateral agreement on biotech issues elsewhere. Europe's internal debate will likely strengthen the political will of the EU negotiators in Montreal to ensure the Protocol indicates its priority over the WTO in cases of conflict.

Third, the deepening consumer resistance to GMOs may generate a sufficient groundswell of political support for a strong Biosafety Protocol not subject to WTO rules. Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand have joined the EU in demanding labels on GMOs. It may be that, rather than trying to accommodate varied national and regional regulations, the biotech industry itself is ready for a coordinated international system.

Kristin Dawkins is a senior fellow at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.


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