Culture + Corporatization: Will the EU stance on GMO food products change free trade politics?
After decades of trade litigation at the World Trade Organization, political stalemate, and European reluctance to embrace the import of foreign genetically modified seed (GMO) and food products, the European Commission is set to formally relinquish to national and local governments the freedom to decide whether to grow and buy GMO products. As one can imagine, the GMO debate is not just about trade barriers, the standard of scientific certainty in food safety, or economic profit. Rather, the debate is also one about culture, people, and the differing values that individuals and corporations place on food.
In 2003, the United States, joined by Canada and Argentina, brought a claim to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that the European Communities’ (EC) strict regulation of genetically modified (GM) agricultural foods violated trade obligations through the creation of a de facto moratorium on GM imports. In 2006, the Panel found that the EC had indeed applied a general de facto moratorium on the approval of biotech products for import between 1999 and 2003, and thus had violated its WTO obligations. Rather than appeal, the EC announced its intention to implement the recommendations and rulings of the Panel in a manner consistent with the WTO.
However, since 2006, the EC has faced a number of bumps on the road to compliance. Austria, Hungary, and Italy have all maintained national bans against GM products, while other EU members have done little to stop them. Although the EU recently voted against the Austrian ban, at least 14 other countries voted against the Commission order. (The UK, the Netherlands, Sweden and Estonia mustered enough of a majority under the EU’s weighted voting system to invalidate the Austrian ban). Previous attempts in June 2005, December 2006, and February 2007, that would have forced Austria and Hungary to lift their national bans on growing and importing specific genetically modified organisms, all failed.
The basic tenet of all WTO agreements is the principle that countries cannot discriminate against their trading partners. WTO policies are oriented toward efficiency, economic growth and decreases in the cost of living, as all sectors from agriculture to services, are pushed to make policies more market-oriented. This market-oriented approach has been particularly difficult to enforce in food and agriculture markets, as loyalty and identification with local agriculture have proven to be deeply rooted. As demonstrated by the ongoing battle over protection for regional products, worldwide subsidies for domestic farmers, or the nearly eight-year deadlock at the Doha Ministerial, agriculture has certainly been a field resistant to market forces. In particular, when policing the use of subsidies for local producers and differentiating between legitimate concerns and artificial trade barriers, the WTO has no mechanism in place to consider social values or preferences. (The WTO founding document, the GATT agreement, left the idea of culture almost completely untouched, but for a few inapplicable exceptions.) (cite/more information available upon request)
While the WTO’s market-directed approach to trade has an upside in terms of fairness of application and uniformity of standards, it also contributes to the general tendency today to consider virtually every public policy in economic terms, including public policy about things inherently non-economic. Over time it may also contribute to a worldwide shift away from culturally determined aims toward those that are more economically optimal.
Given basic WTO principles, it is necessary to examine the cultural context in which these rules function. The United States, compared to its European counterparts, is a very young country. From the country’s inception, Americans both physically pioneered great geographical distance and embraced technology with the occurrence of the industrial revolution early in the country’s existence. With this in mind, it is not surprising that technology has played an enormous role in American society, especially within the agricultural sector. This appreciation of technology, a deep trust in the American regulatory food model, and a industry-susceptible FDA have led to relatively little resistance against genetically modified food products in the United States. Today, over 70% of processed foods on American grocery store shelves contain GMOs. Consumer opposition was historically weak, but has been growing with increased consumer knowledge and publicized events like the WTO Panel decision.
On the other end of the spectrum, Europeans have over the centuries, developed a deep love and appreciation of food as an expression of culture. Examples of food as a distinct cultural value in Europe proliferate. Europeans have long pushed for protections of regional products at the WTO, as the EC protects the association of place with traditional food through regulations restricting the identification of particular regions to foods (e.g., sparkling wine may not be labeled “Champagne” unless it is actually produced in that region). European consumer reaction to the WTO Panel decision has been largely indicative of a culinary culture distrustful of biotech foods. Recent polls by the European Commission have shown that 80 to 90 percent of Europeans distrust genetically modified plants. In February of 2007, Greenpeace delivered Markos Kyprianou, European Commissioner for Health, a petition containing 1,000,000 citizens’ signatures calling for the labeling of milk, meat, eggs and other animal products where the animals have been fed with genetically modified organisms.
Is it Time for a New Trade Paradigm?
In October of 2005, 148 countries signed the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. The Convention set forth an important goal, “to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions” and reaffirmed “the sovereign rights of States to maintain, adopt and implement policies and measures that they deem appropriate for the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions on their territory.” Article 20 of the Convention carefully clarified parties’ obligations with regard to other international agreements: “when interpreting and applying the other treaties to which they are parties or when entering into other international obligations, Parties shall take into account the relevant provisions of this Convention.” Notably, the only two countries that abstained from the Convention’s signing were the United States and Israel, with the United States noting that “the treaty ‘deeply flawed,’ protectionist, and a threat to freedom of expression.”
While the agreement is seemingly benign, a brief inquiry into the time and context of the agreement tells otherwise. Whereas the UNESCO Convention does not explicitly refer to the WTO, it is clear from the negotiating history that the WTO Agreement was the other treaty that negotiators had in mind. The Convention was signed in 2005, the height of the EU GMO controversy. It is also clear that it would not have been possible to achieve agreement on the UNESCO Convention without the inclusion of a provision such as Article 20 that leaves WTO rights and obligations fully applicable. Finally, the Convention also recognizes that in circumstances where cultural expressions “are at risk of extinction, are under serious threat, or are otherwise in need of urgent safeguarding,” parties may take “all appropriate measures” to protect and preserve cultural expressions in a manner consistent with the provisions of the Convention.
Although UNESCO treaties are generally recognized for their symbolic significance rather than their practical application, the shear number of signatories is indicative of a change in global attitudes about the commoditization of non-economic values. As the stakes rise in Europe over regional and country resistance to the Panel decision, the WTO is creeping closer to the eventual cataclysm it must eventually address: is there room for culture in the world of trade liberalization? To isolate itself from the rest of the international law-making world by closing its eyes to any legislative initiative agreed upon outside its own building would be an unwise move for an organization with a questionable future.
The term “culture” is a rather ethereal concept. As an idea lacking precise monetary value, a scientific standard of assessment or a commodity status, “culture” has produced tension between free market principles that push for globalization of economies, as well as cultural identities and preferences. While free trade certainly has its benefits, there are some societal values that should not have a price tag, as they are irreplaceable if lost and are sacred in their own regard. The steady resistance in the EU to genetically modified foods presents an obstacle, if not a turning point in the road of world trade politics. As the leader of trade policy, the World Trade Organization must take some initiative – or accept that of its member states – to deal with the growing resistance against GM crops, and the larger issue of the role of culture in trade. The forces of resistance against GM crops and neo-liberal trade policies show no sign of subsiding anytime soon. In the words of French activist Jose Bove after his arrest for destroying GM maize, “Yes, on January 8, I participated in the destruction of genetically modified maize, which was stored in Novartis’ grain silos in Nerac. And the only regret I have now is that I wasn’t able to destroy more of it.”
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