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At a standstill

Also on CropChoice:

By Brewster Kneen
For CropChoice and The Ram’s Horn (http://www.ramshorn.bc.ca)

(May 21, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- What do Greenpeace, Consumers International, the 49th Parallel Biotechnology Consortium (which I represented), the International Baby Food Action Network, the International Council of Grocery Manufacturers Associations (ICGMA), CropLife International (the agrotoxin-biotech industry) and BIO have in common? They are all international NGOs in the eyes of the FAO and Codex.

Which country delegation to the 30th session of the Codex Alimentarius Committee on Food Labelling (Halifax, May 6-10) had the upfront Monsanto lobbyist on its delegation? Canada (Bob Ingratta, Regulatory and International Affairs, Monsanto Canada and BioteCanada).

Which countries (of the 50 or so represented) were the most vocal opponents of labelling GE foods? The US, of course, and Australia (in spite of having a national mandatory labelling law at home), Argentina (I wonder who paid their way given their current financial situation), Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Canada, though Canada seemed a little less eager to be a patsy to the US this year than last year. The most vocal pro-labelling country delegations were from Norway, Ireland, the Netherlands, Kenya, Korea and the EU as a whole. (With apologies if I have overlooked some. The chair, at one point, asked if the EU could not speak for all its members to save time, but this request was rightly ignored.)

What was achieved at this session? Virtually nothing. The definitions and guidelines remain where they were, mostly at Step 3, for another year, not because the clear majority of countries represented did not want to make some headway toward the labelling of "food and food ingredients obtained through certain techniques of genetic modification/genetic engineering" (the current language, still in the square brackets of contentious text), but because the US and its lackeys are determined to block anything that is not on their agenda. For the US, in this forum as elsewhere, it is ‘my way or the highway.’

One of the obstructionist tactics employed by the US was to insist on reopening discussion on portions of the text previously agreed to. This was most notable in the discussion of definitions and title, where the US tried to insist on replacing the language above with the meaningless and misleading term ‘modern biotechnology’ in spite of the chair’s comment that we had already discussed that item and could not agree, hence it would remain in square brackets. The churlish response of the US was, "We don’t agree with your assessment." At another point the US wanted to insert the words "pending further discussion" but the chair had to point out that you cannot say "agreed pending further discussion." Either we agreed or we did not.

This was the essential tone of the two and a half day discussion, and it is the reason no headway was made. So the whole discussion of labelling is stalled for another year (the 8th) while the biotech industry and its government agents carry on contaminating global seed supplies and the global food system.

The obvious contempt of the US for anyone who does not agree with them is palpable, and disgusting when one considers the time and money invested by countries that cannot afford to squander resources in a process designed to come up with guidelines that will make life simpler and trade more honest. It was not the ‘developing countries’ that argued that GE food labelling, traceability and country of origin identification would work hardship on them, but the US.

There were some other points that should be mentioned as they turn up in many other meetings and organizations.

Traceability was actually the first item on the portion of the agenda dealing with GE foods and there was substantial debate about the meaning of the term, or whether it was even the right term. France suggested that the term was more comprehensive that either tracing or trace-back, the term preferred by the US which wants to limit the concept to describing the ability to identify the source of food in case of a contamination problem. France’s argument was that the source of the food and all its processing and distribution channels ought to be identifiable as they have to be with certified organic foods. The point, France said, is the nurture and support trust throughout the food system. This is probably a novel concept for the US. As with other items, this was tabled for possible future discussion, although it was very clear that the pro-labelling delegations all wanted to see the work on traceability proceed.

‘Choice’ was another word the US wanted to exclude on the ground that Codex was about science-based safety standards, not consumer choice. After yet another time-wasting discussion, it was agreed that the purpose of the guidelines could say "labelling plays an important role in providing information to consumers and thereby facilitating consumer choice."

The loud and authoritarian voice with which major international industry lobbies presented their ultimatums (the ICGMA and BIO – the International Council of Grocery Manufacturers Associations and the Biotechnology Industry Organization) was both inappropriate and obnoxious, but it is worth noting that the ICGMA’s Canadian affiliate, the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers Association, plays a parallel role in the Canadian General Standards Board Committee on the Voluntary Labelling of Foods Obtained or not Obtained Through Genetic Modification. (See note below.)

At the end of the week it was clear that the lines continue to harden. In the final session BIO said, "We cannot support mandatory process-based labelling in any way shape or form." The chair took the opportunity to state emphatically that it is a sovereign right of every country to do what it wants regarding labelling. In fact, she restated several times to make sure the point was not missed, especially by the US.

In Biblical studies there is a term "the hermeneutics of suspicion," which means that every text ought to be approached with some degree of suspicion; it needs to be questioned as to context and intent, and not simply taken as read. I came away from this Codex meeting realizing that it is now necessary to view everything that the US does and says with suspicion. One must not and cannot assume that the US is ever negotiating in good faith, but at the same time we cannot allow the US to poison the atmosphere.

Clearly the US and its industry clients intend to block the labelling of GE foods by whatever means necessary, regardless of how many other countries want to develop even voluntary guidelines, such as is the task of Codex Alimentarius.

But we can take the positive action to withdraw as quickly as possible from the global industrial food system, in favour of supporting a diversity of community controlled local and regional food systems. If you must trade, trade with people you can trust. At the same time, we need to increase genuine NGO (civil society/public interest) participation in activities such as Codex Alimentarius to strengthen the forces of democracy and to argue for the public good.

  • The Canadian Analog: After more than two and a half years of trying to avoid the issue, the Canadian General Standards Board committee has acknowledged the fact that it has to use the simple term "genetic engineering" rather than the misleading language of ‘modern biotechnology’ etc.. But the committee remains stalled on a final draft standard. Comments on adventitious materials (which amounts to a call for a 5% threshold for GE contamination of foods labelled as ‘non-GE) and the rest of the current draft was extended to May 15, but the 6 Government of Canada employees on the committee have issued a joint statement saying, "The Government of Canada is encouraged . . . However, we believe there are opportunities to work through a few key issues and attempt to find common areas where consensus could be built. We thus recommend allowing several more weeks for further deliberations before a second vote is taken." How long this stalling will go on depends on whether or not the biotech industry and its government clients can figure a way out of the mess they have created. Meanwhile, as mentioned above, the contamination proceeds. There are those of us who think this is all very deliberate.

Note: for an interesting discussion, see the paper by Urs P. Thomas, University of Geneva, "The Codex Alimentarius and Environmental Issues: Manoeuvring Between the WTO and the UN System. Contact: urs.thomas@droit.unige.ch

Brewster Kneen is a Canadian activist, publisher of the Ram’s Horn (http://www.ramshorn.bc.ca), and author of Farmageddon, Food and the Culture of Biotechnology, New Society Publishers, 1999, and Invisible Giant, Cargill and Its Transnational Strategies, Pluto Press, 1995, with a revised updated edition due out in October.