One week ago, the governor of Connecticut signed into law the country's second genetically modified organism (GMO) labeling policy, following one approved in Maine (both require adoption of GMO labeling laws in neighboring states to take effect). The movement demanding the right to know when food is genetically modified has gained steam recently, pushing more than half of U.S. states to consider labeling initiatives. As Connecticut Governor Malloy stated upon signing last week's bill, "This is not a movement you are going to stop."
But that doesn't mean that the likes of Monsanto aren't trying. The latest tool sought by GMO corporations to ensure unimpeded and unlabeled production and consumption of GMO products is a sweeping "trade" deal under negotiation this week between the U.S. and the European Union. A “trade” deal only in name, the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) would require the United States and EU to conform domestic financial laws and regulations, climate policies, food and product safety standards, data privacy protections and other non-trade policies to TAFTA rules.
We profiled recently the top ten threats this deal poses to U.S. consumers. Here's how TAFTA could threaten GMO limits and labels.
The EU/U.S. TAFTA Agenda: Deregulation in Disguise
U.S. and EU TAFTA negotiators, advised by the world’s largest agribusinesses, have used coded language in pushing for TAFTA rules that could chill attempts to label food containing GMOs and government approvals of GMO seeds and cultivation of GMO crops. A majority of European consumers and a plurality of U.S. consumers are concerned about the impacts of genetically modified food and crops on human health and the environment.
The EU requires GMO seed approvals that are based on the precautionary principle – that in the face of uncertainty about a product’s safety for consumers or the environment, policies must seek to avoid exposure to risk. Governments have long relied on this principle to shield their populations from uncertain risks from new or emerging products. The U.S. drug safety system is based on the precautionary principle. Thus, drugs must be proved safe before they are permitted on the U.S. market. As a result, the United States did not allow sale of the morning sickness drug Thalidomide in the 1960s, which prevented a generation of children from being born with severe birth defects. In countries where medicines were allowed on the market before being proved safe, thousands of “thalidomide babies” were born.
The EU GMO approval policy requires that a seed/crop must be assessed for its consumer health and environmental implications before it can be marketed. Moreover, EU member countries maintain the authority to altogether ban cultivation of GMOs, which nine nations have done. In addition, the EU and an increasing number of U.S. states have responded to consumers’ demands for GMO labels that allow people to choose whether or not to consume GMO foods.
However, U.S. and EU negotiators are now proposing TAFTA rules that could undermine both precautionary principle-based approvals for GMO seeds and cultivation and GMO labeling. U.S. negotiators have stated that TAFTA should “seek to eliminate or reduce non-tariff barriers…such as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) restrictions that are not based on science.” Translated out of trade jargon, this means that instead of agribusinesses being required to prove that a GMO seed does not pose a threat before it can be sold, limits on GMO seeds or cultivation would only be permitted under TAFTA rules if governments can show that there is scientific evidence of a specific threat to human, animal or plant life. Not only would this endanger the EU GMO approval process, but it would directly undermine the current rights of EU member states to ban cultivation of GMOs.
TAFTA could also undermine the labeling of GMO products that allow consumers to make informed choices. Countries’ ability to maintain or establish product standards not premised on avoiding human or animal health risks but rather, for instance, on providing consumers information, would be limited under rules of another TAFTA chapter, revealingly called “Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).” The food industry considers having to meet the consumer and environmental product standards on which we rely as “technical barriers,” preventing the sale of products not meeting such standards.
Under existing TBT rules, the WTO has ruled that U.S. country-of-origin labels that apply equally to domestic and foreign meat are “discriminatory” because the program could inadvertently disadvantage some importers, even though such effects were not seen in trade flow data after the program was implemented. Now food industry groups seek TAFTA “technical barriers” disciplines that would impose even broader constraints on consumer standards and labels. The GMO labels required in Europe and proposed in 26 U.S. states are a special target.
The Agribusiness TAFTA Agenda: Deregulation without Disguise
European and U.S. agribusiness corporations, in their formal demands issued to TAFTA negotiators, have been remarkably candid in naming the specific U.S. and EU GMO regulations that they would like to see dismantled via TAFTA. Here is their wish list for TAFTA regulatory rollbacks, as stated by the corporations themselves:
- GMO Labels: While more than 90 percent of U.S. consumers support the labeling of genetically modified food and more than half of U.S. states are now considering GMO labeling legislation, large GMO-producing and GMO-using firms are pushing for TAFTA to quash GMO labeling. The U.S. National Confectioners Association has bluntly stated, “US industry also would like to see the US-EU FTA achieve progress in removing mandatory GMO labeling and traceability requirements.” This TAFTA goal threatens not just the EU’s robust GMO labeling policies, but also those being advocated in the United States. Connecticut and Maine recently passed GMO labeling laws, at least 28 states now have such legislation or ballot initiatives, and a congressional committee recently approved funding for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to label GMO salmon. The industry goal for TAFTA is to halt this trend.
- GMO Approval: Many U.S. corporations have stated that they would like TAFTA to force the EU to roll back its precautionary stance toward GMO approvals. The Biotechnology Industry Association (BIO), a corporate alliance that includes GMO behemoth Monsanto, has expressed concern that GMO products sold in the United States are not automatically approved in the EU, where about 60 percent of the populace views GMOs as unsafe for human health. The firms complain of “the significant and growing gap between the deregulation of a new biotechnology product in the United States and the approval of those products in the EU.” Monsanto and other BIO firms hope that TAFTA can be used to push through the “burgeoning backlog of GM products awaiting approval/processing.”
Investor Privileges: Empowering Monsanto’s Attack on GMO Safeguards and Labels
U.S. and EU officials have called for TAFTA to grant foreign firms the power to skirt domestic courts, drag the U.S. and EU governments before extrajudicial tribunals, and directly challenge GMO controls or labels as violations of TAFTA-created foreign investor “rights.” The tribunals, comprised of three private attorneys, would be authorized to order unlimited taxpayer compensation for regulations seen as undermining the “expected future profits” of biotech firms like Monsanto. Such extreme “investor-state” rules have already been included in U.S. “free trade” agreements, forcing taxpayers to pay firms more than $400 million for toxics bans, land-use rules, regulatory permits, and water and timber policies. Just under U.S. pacts, more than $14 billion remains pending in corporate claims against medicine patent policies, pollution cleanup requirements, climate and energy laws, and other public interest polices. The EU is proposing an even more radical version of these rules for TAFTA, offering firms a new tool to roll back GMO limits and labels.
Fast Track: Railroading Democracy to Railroad Safeguards?
How could a deal like TAFTA get past Congress? With a democracy-undermining procedure known as Fast Track – an extreme and rarely-used maneuver that empowered executive branch negotiators, advised by large corporations, to ram through unfair “trade” deals by unilaterally negotiating and signing the deals before sending them to Congress for an expedited, no-amendments, limited-debate vote. As a candidate, President Obama said he would replace this expired, anti-democratic process. But now he is asking Congress to grant him Fast Track’s extraordinary authority – in part to sidestep growing public and congressional concern about pacts like TAFTA. We must ensure that Fast Track never again takes effect and instead create an open, inclusive process for negotiating and enacting trade agreements in the public interest.