Bananas are only the warm-up act

Published in the New Statesman, on 12th March 1999.

Miscalculation causes more disasters than malice. The current round of miscalculations on trade and genetically modified (GM) foods on both sides of the Atlantic could, if unchecked, cost the 21st century dearly. The banana wars dominating today’s headlines are only a prelude to the even more violent trade turbulence to come over bovine growth hormone (BGH), bovine somatotrophin (BST) and GM crops. This whole alphabet soup is brought to you courtesy of Monsanto, which is rapidly becoming a surrogate for Satan in European eyes.

Washington is badly miscalculating the depth of public opposition to GM foods in Europe. But then our own Prime Minister has made an even larger miscalculation of British public opinion on the same issue: his claim that GM foods were safe and that he ate them was roundly – and rightly – derided. Meanwhile, scientists on both sides of the Atlantic are miscalculating the extent to which anyone believes that they know what they are doing with GM foods, and the biotechnology industry is miscalculating the extent to which there is any belief in the benefits of its products. But perhaps the biggest miscalculation of all was that of the US trade authorities in deciding unilaterally to introduce punitive sanctions in the bananas dispute.

The banana war and GM foods have thus become inextricably linked. This is no accident: America’s aggressive stance on bananas is calculated to deter further EU resistance on the much more economically significant, and politically difficult, biotechnology issues to come later this year.

Next week a high-level symposium on trade and the environment will take place in Geneva under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Proposed by Sir Leon Brittan as an attempt to defuse growing tensions between the world’s trade and environment groups, this initiative was strongly endorsed by both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Far from being the intended consensus-building forum, the symposium is now likely to become a cockpit of ever more bitter divisions, with developing nations and the world’s environment and development pressure groups striking back at the US.

It will be followed in June by the European Parliament elections. European Parliament elections do not normally excite much interest. The timing of this transatlantic punch-up may change that and in doing so force the bigger political parties into a more combative stance on trade liberalisation and GM foods. It is hard to conceive of a better issue for Europe’s increasingly powerful green parties to take into an election than the possibility of a trade war with the US over GM foods. Greenpeace recently released leaked Monsanto opinion polling which showed that, even before this latest row, European public opinion had shifted dramatically against the introduction of GM foods, especially in Germany and Britain.

Genetic modification arouses deep passions. As an issue it reaches across every conceivable social, economic and political divide. It raises profound ethical issues that are difficult to encompass within the current mechanisms for making public policy. There is no scientific consensus on the safety of foods or the environmental risks of growing genetically modified crops – largely because there has been so little testing. Under-resourced regulators, operating at the boundaries of the known, driven on all sides by deregulatory pressures, command no public confidence.

The European public has received a long and very expensive education in agriculture courtesy of the institutionalised insanity of the Common Agricultural Policy and the nightmare of BSE. For all that it may appear to Washington eyes as just more European protection for its agribusiness, the arguments against GM crops are simple common sense to Europe’s public. No one in Europe sees any benefit in producing more milk that we cannot drink, or bigger cows that we cannot eat, or more oil-seed rape. If there are no benefits, then why run any risks at all? Europe’s agriculturally literate public understands all too well that the only people to benefit from GM foods will be the patent owners and very large farmers.

The WTO lacks both the authority and the legitimacy to resolve such complexities. Its rules, as the banana dispute so well illustrates, are subject to wide interpretation. Its disputes process has the appearance of law but none of the safeguards. In none of the many recent clashes between trade and the environment has the disputes process arrived at anything but the most purist free trade outcome.

Yet if the US, driven by the commercial momentum from Monsanto and its indifference to opinion elsewhere in the world, has its way, the full burden of resolving this matter will fall to the WTO as we enter the new millennium.

Both trade liberalisation and biotechnology (though not necessarily for foods) will be essential if the world is to make a successful transition to sustainable development. Monsanto and the US government between them seem determined to turn biotechnology into the nuclear industry of the 21st century and cripple the WTO on the way.

The Prime Minister needs urgently to defuse the domestic debate on these issues, perhaps by inviting the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, one of the few public bodies consistently to command public confidence on controversial matters, to revisit its 1989 and 1991 reports on biotechnology.

Internationally, he needs to encourage his friend Bill to rein in the free trade hawks in the US Trade Representative’s office long enough for someone to find a way out of this mess.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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