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June 03, 2007

USTR: GMO Pushers

In a remarkable e-mail exchange made public recently by Friends of the Earth Europe, a U.S. Trade Representative official chastized a European Union official for using the term, "GMO" for genetically modified organisms. The official goes on to write, "We should discuss this mislabeling which misleads consumers not to mention those not trained in the appropriate sciences."

The e-mail exchange was precurser to a meeting where USTR officials pressured the EU to overturn national GMO bans in some member countries, speed up the approval process of new GMOs, and lower contamination standards. FOE Europe obtained the minutes of the meeting through a Freedom of Information request.

The meeting and e-mail exchange demonstrate in graphic detail the extent to which the USTR will work on behalf of the biotech industry, including the world's largest biotech seed company, St. Louis-based Monsanto.

Since the introduction of GMO crops in the mid-90s the biotech industry has faced a major stumbling block: consumers don't want them. In the U.S., the industry got around this minor problem by working with the Food and Drug Administration to not require labelling, despite a number of polls finding overwhelming public support for such labeling. But even without labelling, the industry has had trouble gaining the approval of new foods that people actually eat - such as wheat, rice or potatoes. Most GMOs in the U.S. are corn, soybeans and cotton - with corn and soybeans going primarily into animal feed, biofuels, or highly processed oils and sweeteners.

Other countries, particularly the EU, have been much tougher on GMOs, wanting to see more science on health and environmental risks, and requiring consumer labeling. So the USTR has picked up the ball for the biotech industry. First it heavily pressured the EU to weaken its regulations, then filed a major case at the World Trade Organization (WTO) successfully challenging the EU's tougher regulations as barriers to trade. IATP's Steve Suppan followed the case closely and wrote this paper analyzing the WTO ruling and its implications for GMO safety regulations.

The debate over GMOs worldwide cuts deeper than simply labeling or safety regulations. In many countries, GMOs exemplify a damaging corporate model of agriculture (often seen as a U.S.-model), greater agribusiness control over how farmers grow food and a denial of the rights of consumers to know what they are eating. GMOs are predicated on proprietary technology. In the biotech industry's view, farmers do not own the seeds they buy - they are leasing the technology and not allowed to save the seeds as is tradition in most countries around the world. In the U.S., Monsanto has sued nearly 100 farmers to protect their technology.

Private corporations, like Monsanto, are not allowed to file dispute resolution cases to challenge national regulations under WTO rules. Only governments can bring WTO challenges. In this case, the USTR conveniently stepped in and challenged the EU's biotech seed regulations at the WTO. Now, it appears USTR is trying to finish the job.

Ben Lilliston

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