1. Biotech groups despair at EU attitudes
2. GM crops hard to insure - report
3. Thai farmers, AIDS activists march on US embassy
4. Dispatch From Doha
1. Biotech groups despair at EU attitudes: GMOs are not popular among EU governments despite Brussels marking the technology as an area for growth
By MICHAEL MANN
November 10, 2001
When, if ever, will the European Union finally start approving genetically modified crops again?
That is the question European biotechnology companies are asking after EU environment ministers last month spurned the European Commission's latest effort to get the long-stalled authorisation process moving again.
No new genetically modified crops have been approved in the EU for more than three years. Last month, ministers made it plain that proposed new rules on labelling and tracing modified ingredients will have to be in place before they will consider lifting the block. This could take as long as three years. While delighting the environmentalists, who have run a highly effective campaign against such genetically modified foods, the impasse has angered the biotech industry, set Europe on a collision course with the US, and presented the Commission with a serious dilemma.
The Commission has earmarked biotechnology as a key area for growth in the EU's oft-stated quest to become the world's leading knowledge-based economy by 2010.
Yet a hard core of EU governments has declared a voluntary moratorium on new modified crop approvals, fearing a consumer backlash from the perception that foods derived from such crops pose potential health risks. European attitudes to food safety have hardened following a number of scares, most notably mad cow disease crisis.
Evidence of danger to human health is scant. Opponents of modified foods most often point to the US case of the corn StarLink, developed by Aventis, which was linked to several complaints alleging serious allergic reactions. However, StarLink was approved only for animal feed and found its way accidentally into some food products.
Commission officials insist that genetically modified products face much more stringent pre-release testing than conventional crops. They point out that consumers happily swallow pills developed using biotechnology, while spurning foods derived from modified crops.
Simon Barber of Europabio, which speaks for biotechnology companies in Europe, claims there are double standards in Europe. "We hear a number of positive statements about the importance of biotechnology, but the regulatory machinery is stuck."
There is much at stake. In a recent report, the Commission highlighted the dangers of a brain-drain to countries, such as the US, where the business environment is far more favourable to the biotechnology industry and where R&D expenditure dwarfs the amount of money spent in the EU.
Biotech companies claim farmers are being deprived of new products that could give them a vital competitive edge and also point to the environmental benefits of modified crops, which reduce pesticide and herbicide use.
Meanwhile, the US administration is coming under growing pressure from industry to act against the EU, on the grounds that its moratorium is illegal and prevents US farmers shipping to Europe varieties of corn and soya that have not been approved for EU use.
The US claims to be losing Dollars 200m (Pounds 137m) in corn exports a year and some estimates put the additional cost to the US of applying new EU standards to bulk commodity exports at as much as Dollars 4bn a year.
The Commission also believes that the moratorium is illegal, as EU governments are refusing even to vote on approving 13 genetically modified crop varieties already cleared by the EU's own scientific advisers. Under the EU's regulatory system, the Commission is supposed to authorise any products once they are passed as safe if governments fail to take any decision.
But while it fears legal action from disgruntled biotech groups if it fails to act, it is also acutely aware of the public relations disaster if it chose to override the wishes of elected EU governments, particularly on an issue as sensitive as food safety.
The hard core of countries behind the moratorium - France, Italy, Austria, Denmark, Greece and Luxembourg - originally called for new rules on tracing and labelling modified foods a condition for ending their opposition.
Margot Wallstrom, EU environment commissioner, hoped the Commission's adoption in late July of proposals to meet these demands would end the logjam. She has described the response she received as "very disturbing".
A number of ministers stressed there could be no end to the moratorium before the labelling rules were on the statute book, a process which could take three years. France went further, suggesting there was a need for specific new laws on companies' liability for environmental damage caused by their products.
All this leaves the system in limbo and the Commission facing the reality that EU governments are stifling an industry it has singled out for favoured status.
"It's about time the member states actually stood up and said whether or not they really want GMOs," says one frustrated official. "They've got to stop using a science-based safety system for political ends."
2. GM crops hard to insure - report
November 10, 2001
The West Australian [via Agnet - shortened]
Insurance Council of Australia spokesman Rod Frail was cited as saying Friday that liability for injury or contamination caused by genetically modified crops may be too difficult to insure, adding, "It's difficult for insurers to assess the risk so it's difficult to set a premium. I would not make a blanket claim that no one is going to cover it because there are specialist insurers out there. But this is the general view."
The story notes that WA has a moratorium on the commercial introduction of GM crops, but field trials of GM cotton, poppies, canola, peas, clover and lupins have been run throughout the State.
In a submission to a House of Representatives primary industry standing committee, the council said there was little if any meaningful experience of loss available to insurers of genetic engineered risks in Australia.
3. Thai farmers, AIDS activists march on US Embassy
Date: Fri, 9 Nov 2001 18:17:48 +0700
By Nicola Bullard, Focus on the Global South
BANGKOK, 9 November - In one of the first protests on the international day of action against the WTO, more than 1,500 farmers, jasmine rice producers, trade unionists and HIV/AIDS activists marched from Bangkok's World Trade Centre to the US Embassy.
Watched by about 100 police and embassy security, the protesters called for the WTO to get out of agriculture and an end to patenting of life and drugs. Leaders from the Assembly of the Poor, Thailand's largest social movement, farmers organisations from around the country and the national AIDS networks, presented petitions to the US embassy representative Mr Win Dayton demanding US action on drugs and rice patenting, and a change to the US position on WTO negotiations.
Meanwhile, one well-known farmer leader speaking from the rally truck expressed his sympathy to the US for the loss of life on September 11, but said that the US has killed people everywhere. Patents on drugs kill people, he said, and patents on rice make the farmers suffer. "The US will create bin Laden allies in Thailand with its policies on drugs and rice," he warned.
Rice is the soul of Thai culture and sentiments here are running high since it was revealed that the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) had illegally given germ of Thailand's 'hom mali' (jasmine) rice to US researchers. Jasmine rice growers fear that if scientists patent a variation on the famous scented rice, their exports could suffer. Thailand currently produces 30 per cent of all internationally traded rice.
Pricing of HIV AIDS treatment drugs is also a hot issue. Only five per cent of Thailand's 750,000 AIDS sufferers can afford treatment, yet the government's efforts to allow the production of generic drugs have met with heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the US, which has sent a string of trade envoys claiming that the changes breach bilateral agreements and are "unacceptable to the US."
Thai workers were also out in force. Over one hundred unionists from the national carrier Thai International were protesting at further privatisation of the airline. Khun Boonchuey, a ground-crew technician, said "When the companies privatise, people lose their jobs and in Thailand there is no job security, no social safety nets. We are left with nothing."
Junya Yimprasert, co-ordinator of the Thai Labour Campaign agreed. "Trade policies, she said, "do not protect the workers and they cause many people to lose their jobs." Hundreds of state employees, autoworkers, maritime, transport and services workers joined the rally, responding to the ICFTU call for an international day of action.
The US embassy is in the heart of Bangkok's financial and diplomatic district and one of the few tree-lined streets in the hot sprawling city. After several hours of standing, the workers and farmers settled in the shade to eat and drink, watched by well-dressed office workers and embassy staff. One man approached a group of protesters introducing himself as an American working for a TNC. "I have one question," he said. "Why do you think you can protest about patenting when Thailand has been violating copyright for years? You can buy a Harry Potter CD at the local market for 150 baht [about $4]. Tell me, what gives you the right to complain about copyright?"
Khun Kingkorn Narinthrakul, who works with peasants in the North of Thailand, wasn't surprised at this idiotic comparison between entertainment CDs, life saving drugs and farmers livelihoods and replied politely "Does this make anyone die? And besides, it's the only way the poor people can see Harry Potter."
Before marching off to Lumpini Park for an afternoon of music and speeches, villagers set off fire-crackers and burnt chilli and salt - a ritual which locals believe brings bad luck to bad people. The smoke wafted into the embassy.
Focus on the Global South (FOCUS)
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Bangkok 10330 THAILAND
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4. Dispatch From Doha
by WALDEN BELLO
About 100 NGO delegates staged an anti-World Trade Organization demonstration on Friday, immediately before the opening of the trade body's fourth ministerial session in Doha, Qatar. Standing on both sides of the entrance to the huge Al Dafna Hall at the Sheraton Hotel, the protesters, with tape on their mouths, held up signs saying "No Voice at the WTO," calling attention to the lack of democracy, transparency and civil society input into the organization's decision-making processes.
After over 5,000 delegates had filed in, the demonstrators started chanting "What do we want? Democracy!" An effort by Jose Bove, the French anti-McDonalds activist, to lead the demonstrators into the hall was at first repelled by Qatari security forces. A few moments later, however, the demonstrators were allowed in. Fulfilling a pledge made at an open session earlier in the day by Crown Prince Sheik Jassim bin Hamad, security forces did not arrest or detain any of the activists.
Desperate is the only word to describe the actions of the trade superpowers represented at the meeting. Tremendous pressure is being exerted on developing countries to endorse a new round of trade negotiations. The weapons include manipulation of the WTO's undemocratic system of decision-making and blunter forms of trade blackmail.
Massive security preparations have turned Doha, a city of over 600,000, into a high security zone, to the consternation of ordinary Qataris, many of whom claim that the United States is exaggerating the dangers of holding the conference in the Gulf city. The security arrangements have isolated the conference site and are making transportation to and from hotels an exercise in resourcefulness for many delegates.
An armed attack by an allegedly deranged Qatari gunman on a munitions base on the outskirts of Doha, used by the United States, earlier in the week has heightened the tension. Even before that incident, the office of the US Trade Representative had moved to gather representatives of US NGOs from their separate lodgings to join the US official delegation at the Ritz Carlton, which has been converted into an armed camp, with logistical connections to US warships waiting in the Gulf for possible evacuation of American delegates. There is more than enough space in the hotel, since the number of people in the official US delegation has shrunk from about 300 to fifty.
So paranoid is the US security force at the Ritz Carlton that they prevented Anuradha Mittal, executive director of the Oakland-based think tank Food First, from riding on the same bus from the hotel to the conference site after they discovered that she is an Indian citizen. She said that they also refused to give her access to US official briefings or provide her with a security phone and gas mask, which they were distributing to other members of the American entourage.
The dramatic shrinkage in the number of official delegates is not confined to the US delegation. The Canadian delegation, usually one of the biggest, is down to fifty. Says Maude Barlow, a noted critic of her government's trade policies: "People were suddenly all getting sick or disabled at the last minute, and to try to cover the cost of the government plane, they even invited me for the ride to Qatar."
The smaller number of key actors from the United States and other members of so-called "Quad" (European Union, Canada and Japan) is not, however, likely to change the dynamics of the conference.
The majority of developing countries want the Ministerial to focus on matters related to the implementation of the commitments made under the Uruguay Round. This position was laid out in a recent declaration of the Group of 77, which identified "104 implementation issues" that needed to be "meaningfully resolved, with urgency before the Fourth Ministerial Meeting and without any extraneous linkages."
Developing countries have been groaning under the weight of implementing the twenty-eight different agreements that comprised the Uruguay Round agreement, while the big trading powers have refused or been slow to implement their commitments to provide greater market access in agriculture and textiles to developing countries or cut back the massive subsidization of their agricultural interests.
The European Union and the United States, on the other hand, have put some of their differences aside--temporarily--to present a common front for a new round of trade negotiations that would focus on expanding the mandate of the WTO to cover the so-called "new issues" of investment, competition policy, government procurement and trade facilitation. Essentially, these are the same issues that formed their common agenda of global economic liberalization prior to the disastrous WTO Ministerial in December 1999.
Learning from Seattle, the EU and United States have de-emphasized their disagreement on agricultural trade issues, and the United States apparently does not intend to make the linkage between trade and labor standards--a key point of conflict with developing countries in Seattle (and, for different reasons, also an issue of great concern to US labor unions)--an issue in Doha.
Controversial Draft Declaration
The proposed draft declaration for the Ministerial meeting is an example of the sort of underhanded tactics that the big trading powers are resorting to. According to Aileen Kwa, a Geneva-based analyst who monitors the WTO for Focus on the Global South, the draft does not emphasize the developing countries' stated priorities of implementation issues, the "Special and Differential Treatment" of developing countries, greater access to developed country markets, and reviews of the agreements on Trade Related Investment Measures (TRIMs), Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), and services (GATS).
Instead, the draft projects an alleged consensus on negotiations on the issues of competition, investment policy, government procurement, and trade facilitation that are the priorities of the minority of rich and powerful trading countries. "Despite clearly stated positions that the developing countries are unwilling to go into a new round until past implementation and decision-making are addressed," says Kwa, "the draft declaration favorably positions the launching of a comprehensive new round with an open agenda."
The draft has been openly denounced by Nigeria as "one-sided" and "showing not much regard for our countries." Bitter complaints from the poor countries prompted Stuart Harbinson of Hong Kong, chair of the WTO General Council, to walk out of a briefing in Geneva last week. Many governments are incensed that the draft fails to acknowledge the strong stand they have made on the principle that nothing in the Trade Related Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs) shall prevent them from taking measures to protect public health by overriding patents.
The draft was a product of consultations conducted among an inner circle of about 20-25 participants--the so-called Green Room process--that effectively excludes most of the members of the WTO. In the lead-up to Qatar, this exclusive process has already held two "mini-Ministerials," one in Mexico at the end of August and another in Singapore on October 13-14. How one gets invited to these meetings is very murky. Kwa cites the case of one ambassador from a transition economy who was promised an invitation to a Green Room meeting by the WTO Secretariat but never got one.
Then there was the case of an African ambassador who wanted to attend the Singapore mini-ministerial: When he approached the WTO secretariat for an invitation, he was told that it was not hosting the meeting. When he tried the Singapore mission in Geneva, the response was that the mission was simply coordinating the meeting and was not in a position to send out invitations. Developing country disaffection with the Green Room process was one of the reasons the Third Ministerial collapsed in 1999. At that time, Charlene Barshefsky, then US Trade Representative, admitted that the WTO decision-making process was non-transparent and inequitable and had to be changed. Stephen Byers, the UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, was even more emphatic, saying that the "WTO will not be able to continue in its present form. There has to be fundamental and radical change in order for it to meet the needs and aspirations of all 134 of its members."
That moment of candor was, however, forgotten quickly as the developed countries realized that in an organization like the WTO, where the developing countries are in the majority, the big powers can only dominate through such non-democratic mechanisms as the Green Room and the so-called "Consensus System." Barely two months after Seattle, Michael Moore, WTO director general, told developing countries at the UNCTAD X gathering in Bangkok in February 2000 that the green room/consensus system was "non-negotiable." And there the matter has lain since.
Capitalizing on Tragedy
The trade superpowers have not wasted any opportunity to push for a new trade round. The smoke had not yet cleared from the ruins of the World Trade Center in New York before US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick seized on the tragedy to press for even greater trade liberalization via the WTO and other mechanisms, asserting that free trade was one of the best ways of countering terrorism. Others have been more brazen: At a recent conference in Budapest, David Hartridge, an influential senior official at the WTO Secretariat, openly declared that the September 11 terrorists and activists against corporate-driven globalization shared a propensity for "violent behavior" and warned people from going to Geneva for demonstrations against the WTO in mid-November because "there will be violence."
While the developing countries held the line in the months after the disastrous collapse of the Seattle Ministerial in December 1999, many observers fear that their resolve might now be weakening in the face of concerted pressure from the developed countries. Aside from being subjected to the WTO's exclusionary decision-making process, some countries are being bludgeoned more directly. According to Shefali Sharma of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the United States has sent letters to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and several other countries revoking their preferential trade status on some trade agreements owing to their opposition to liberalization of government procurement, which is at the top of the US agenda for the Ministerial.
The powerful trading countries may well get their way and ram through a declaration that agrees to a comprehensive round of trade negotiations in Doha. But the greatest obstacle to trade liberalization may no longer be the developing countries but the global economy itself, which is contracting very quickly owing to the very interlocking of economies brought about by globalization and liberalization. In both developed and developing countries, pressures to save domestic industries, focus on domestic-demand-led growth, and counteract the vulnerabilities of export-led economies at a time of a deep global recession will probably stymie any significant movement toward more liberalization. The Fourth Ministerial may well turn out to be the last hurrah of the WTO and the project of radical economic globalization of which it was the crown jewel.