WTO free zone

Biosafety Protocol under attack

Feature story - 28 July, 2003
Greenpeace cordoned off the UN building in Montreal, to protect it from the US attack on consumers, farmers and the environment. Activists at the Greenpeace checkpoint were on the lookout for representatives of the US administration and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who are trying to undermine countries' rights to reject or ban genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Greenpeace activists dressed as security guards confiscate a bag of genetically modified organisms from 'George Bush'.

The Bush Administration, and the transnational genetic engineering and agro-chemical industries that back Bush, are using the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to try and force open new markets for their products. These 'new frontiers' are in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

The real battle has just begun. The US, supported by Canada and Argentina, launched a pre-emptive strike by filing a complaint in the WTO against the European Union's new comprehensive GMO labelling laws. With this complaint, the US also targets the global agreement that effectively secures the right of countries to ban or severely restrict imports and the use of GMOs - the Biosafety Protocol.

The Biosafety Protocol enables governments in the South to resist political coercion on the basis of the precautionary principle. (1) Applying this rule, countries can ensure that the protection of biosafety and biodiversity (particularly agricultural biodiversity), comes before the expansion of corporate agribusiness and the vicious cycle of dependency that this involves.

But over the last decade the US, Canada and Argentina have tried desperately to prevent the Biosafety Protocol from becoming a reality. The Protocol was agreed in the UN building in Montreal and is due to come into effect on the first day of the WTO meeting in Cancun, on 11 September, 2003.

Eric Darier, Greenpeace genetic engineering campaigner in Canada said "The presence of the WTO in Montreal for this informal mini-ministerial is a bad omen for people and the environment. It is the duty of all countries to ensure that the already well-established major international agreements to protect people and the environment do not become casualties of a corporate driven agenda pushed by the WTO which promotes trade at any cost over sustainable development."

Sebastien Risso, Greenpeace EU advisor for trade issues in Montreal said, "The WTO is increasingly proving to be an undemocratic and non-transparent political tool used by big business to erode the environment, public health and consumer rights. Given the clear WTO bias, which favours trade liberalisation over other legitimate policy goals, the WTO is now facing a severe legitimacy crisis and therefore must be prevented from further expanding its mandate."

"What is needed now is a thorough assessment of the rules governing the global trade system, and substantial reform, which frees people from forced trade. The world needs a strong multilateral system in which peace and sustainability hold primacy over narrow corporate interest and national egoism,"

Risso concluded.

(1) Where there is the potential for serious or irreversible threats to health and the environment, action can be taken on the basis of the precautionary principle to avoid such threats, even where definite proof of harm does not yet exist. Precisely the case of genetic engineering that involves such broad threats and whose harmful impacts could be severe and irreversible. Find out more about the precautionary principle.