WTO rules put free-trade of agribusiness above national health concerns
In February, a private organization with unique powers over world industry, trade
and agriculture, issued a Preliminary Draft Ruling on a three-year-old case. The
case was brought by the Bush Administration in May 2003 against European Union
rules hindering the spread of genetically-engineered plants and foods. The WTO
ruling, which is to be final in December, will have more influence over life and
death on this planet than most imagine.
The ruling was issued by a special three-man tribunal of the World Trade Organization,
in Geneva Switzerland. The WTO decision will open the floodgates to the forced
introduction of genetically-manipulated plants and food products-- GMO, or genetically-modified
organisms as they are technically known-- into the world’s most important
agriculture production region, the European Union.
The WTO case arose from a formal complaint filed by the governments of the
United States, Canada and Argentina—three of the world’s most GMO-polluted
The WTO three-judge panel, chaired by Christian Haberli, a mid-level Swiss
Agriculture Office bureaucrat, ruled that the EU had applied a 'de facto' moratorium
on approvals of GMO products between June 1999 and August 2003, contradicting
Brussels' claim that no such moratorium existed. The WTO judges argued the EU
was ‘guilty’ of not following EU rules, causing ‘undue delay’
in following WTO obligations.
The secretive WTO tribunal also ruled, according to the leaked document, that
in terms of product-specific measures, the completion of formal EU government
approval to plant specific GMO plants had also been unduly delayed in the cases
of 24 of 27 specific GMO products that the European Commission in Brussels had
The WTO tribunal recommended that the WTO Dispute Settlement Body (DSB), the
world trade policeman, call on the EU to bring its practices ‘into conformity
with its obligations under the (WTO’s) SPS Agreement.’ Failure to
comply with WTO demands can result in hundreds of millions dollars in annual
Trade über Alles
SPS stands for Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. On the surface it sounds
as if health concerns were part of the WTO considerations. The reality is the
opposite. Only minimal health standards are to be allowed to be enforced under
WTO free trade rules, and any nation attempting anything more strict, such as
the EU ban on import of US hormone-fed beef, can be found guilty by WTO of an
‘unfair restraint of trade.’
Today the EU must pay a fine of $150 million yearly to maintain its ban on
the US hormone-fed beef. WTO rules in effect put free-trade interests of agribusiness
above national health concerns. That means, de facto, that the EU Commission
must complete its approval process for the 24 outstanding applications to plant
GMO crops in Europe once the final ruling is made later this year.
That will mean a flood of new GMO products in EU agriculture. Monsanto, Syngenta
and other GMO multinationals have already taken advantage of lax national rules
in new EU member countries such as Poland to get the GMO ‘foot-in-the
door.’ Now it will be far easier for them. Pro-GMO governments such as
that of Angela Merkel in Germany can claim they are only following WTO ‘orders.’
What is the significance of this WTO ruling, assuming it remains as is in final
form by December? It represents a major, dangerous wedge into largely GMO-free
EU agriculture, permitting powerful agribusiness multinationals such as Monsanto,
Dow Chemicals or DuPont to overrun national or regional efforts to halt the
march of GMO. For this reason, it is potentially the most damaging decision
in the history of world trade agreements.
A strategic Washington matter
The case first came before the World Trade Organization in a filing made by
the Bush Administration in May 2003, just as the military occupation of Iraq
was entering a new phase. The US President held a rare press conference to tell
the world that the US was formally charging the EU, accusing the EU ‘moratorium’
on GMO approval of being a cause of starvation in Africa. Their twisted logic
argued that so long as a major industrialized region such as the EU resisted
planting GMO crops domestically, it caused sceptical African governments to
harden their resistance to US food aid in the form of GMO crops. That, Bush
charged, was causing unnecessary ‘starvation’ in Africa because
some countries refused USDA food aid in form of GMO crop surpluses.
The issue of breaking resistance barriers in the European Union to the proliferation
of GMO crops has been a matter of the highest strategic priority for those controlling
policy in Washington since 1992 when then-President George H.W. Bush, the father
of the current President, issued an Executive Order proclaiming GMO plants such
as soybeans or GMO corn to be ‘substantially equivalent’ to ordinary
corn or soybeans, and, therefore, not needing any special health safety study
That ‘substantial equivalence’ ruling by President Bush in 1992
opened the floodgates to the unregulated spread of GMO across the American agriculture
landscape. As basis for its 2003 WTO filing against the EU, Washington, on behalf
of agribusiness interests including Monsanto, Dow, DuPont and others, charged
the EU with violation of the American ‘substantial equivalence’
So long as the world’s second most powerful agriculture trade region,
the EU, firmly resisted the introduction of untested GM plants, the global spread
of the GMO revolution would remain strategically crippled. For the past decades,
breaking up the system of domestic agriculture protection of the EU, centered
around its Common Agriculture Program, has been a strategic political and trade
goal of the US Government and US-based agribusiness. The creation of the WTO
in 1995, a result of the GATT Uruguay Round trade talks during the 1980’s,
opened the possibility for the first time of forcing the EU to drop its defenses
on US threat of sanctions.
The secret process behind WTO
When the final WTO Panel ruling is published and official this coming December,
assuming no major changes take place in the 1,050 page preliminary ruling of
February 7, a major barrier to the global spread of largely untested and highly
unstable genetically modified foods will be gone. This will become unstoppable,
as it was in the USA, unless political pressure from a sceptical European population
forces the EU Commission to pay a WTO fine or penalty, in lieu of acceding to
the demands of the WTO.
It’s relevant to ask what is this body, WTO which exercises such enormous
power over laws of nations? What is its mandate and who controls its policies?
The negotiations of world trade since the establishment of the Bretton Woods
postwar monetary system at the end of World War II, had been made through a
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a series of trade rounds on specific
issues between specific member countries. In September 1986, on US-led pressure,
the Uruguay Round of GATT was launched in Punta del Este Uruguay. The result
was creation of a new, powerful private international agency, the WTO.
In late 1994 the US Congress voted to join the WTO, the new permanent trade
body established by the GATT Uruguay Round. There was almost no debate. It was
clear in Washington who would dominate the new body. Unlike GATT which had no
enforcement power, and which required unanimous member vote for sanctions, the
WTO would be given tough sanction and enforcement powers. More important, how
it reached decisions was to remain secret, with no democratic oversight. The
most vital issues of economic life on the planet were to be decided behind closed
doors in Geneva WTO headquarters or in Washington and Brussels. It could choose
its ‘experts’ as it saw fit and ignore what evidence it saw fit.
In the EU GMO dispute, three of four initial scientific experts chosen were
from either US or UK institutions, two countries most in favour of GMO. (1)
Two years earlier, in 1992, at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
in Rio, 175 UN governments signed a convention to on the safe handling and treatment
of GMOs, a major vote of the world community to examine the health and economic
impacts of GMO agriculture before it could be allowed in a country. The US Government
of President George Bush Sr. aggressively opposed the CBD, arguing that a Biosafety
Protocol was unnecessary. Under the CBD agreement, a country could prohibit
The GMO industry, led by Monsanto, DuPont and Dow of the US, sabotaged this
agreement. A group of six countries controlling the world Biotech or GMO market—Canada,
Argentina, Uruguay, Australia Chile and USA-- forced a clause into the CBD text
which would subordinate the Biosafety Protocol to the WTO. They argued that
limiting trade based on ‘unproven’ biosafety concerns should be
considered a ‘barrier to trade’ under WTO rules!
Traditional liability law holds that a new product must first be proven safe
before being allowed on market. This WTO rule placing the burden of proof not
on the producer of a new GMO product, but on the potential victims, turned prudence
and health safety issues on its head. In the end the US destroyed the Biosafety
Protocol by refusing to include soybeans and corn, 99% of all GMO products,
making the Protocol near worthless regarding GMO health issues.
The WTO serves as the weapon for the powerful coalition of Washington and the
powerful private GMO giants, led by Monsanto. Earlier in 1992, Bush, on advice
of Monsanto and the emerging US GM giant companies, ruled that GM organisms
were ‘substantially equivalent’ to ordinary seeds for soybeans or
corn and such. As ‘substantially equivalent,’ GM seeds required
no special testing or health controls before being put on the market. This was
crucial to the future of Monsanto and the GMO lobby.
By Presidential Executive Order, the US had defined GMO seeds as harmless and
hence not needing to be regulated for health and safety. It made sure this principle
was carried over into the new WTO in the form of the WTO’s Sanitary and
Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS), which stated, ‘Food standards and measures
aimed at protecting people from pests or animals can potentially be used as
a deliberate barrier to trade.’ The US charge against the EU in the present
GMO dispute charged the EU with violation of the SPS agreement of WTO.
Other WTO rules in the Agreement to Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) forbid
member countries from using domestic standards or testing, food safety laws,
product standards, calling them an ‘unfair barrier to trade.’
The impact of those two US-mandated WTO rulings meant that Washington could
threaten that any government restricting import of GM plants on grounds they
might pose threats to health and safety of their population, could be found
to be in violation of WTO free trade rules!
This is what the US Government, on behalf of its agribusiness private corporations
has done against the EU restrictions on GMO.
Under the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade, the US has argued that no
labelling of GMO plants was required, as the plants have not been ‘substantially
transformed’ from normal or non-GM soya, corn or other plants. This conveniently
ignored the fact that Washington simultaneously insisted that GMOs, due to the
genetic engineering process, are sufficiently transformed, i.e. NOT equivalent,
to be patented as ‘original’, and protected under WTO TRIPS intellectual
property patent rights. (2).
The Agreement on Agriculture
The heart of the WTO machinery is the WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA), which
under the sheep’s wool of ‘free trade,’ hides the wolf of
private agri-business GMO monopoly power. Under AoA rules, since 1995 poorer
developing countries have been forced to eliminate quotas and slash protective
tariffs, at the same time the Bush Administration voted to increase its subsidies
to US agribusiness farming by $80 billions.
The net effect has been to allow the powerful monopoly of five grain trading
giants—Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Andre (formerly) and Louis Dreyfus—to
dramatically increase the dumping of food commodities globally, ruining millions
of family farmers worldwide in the process, while maximizing their private corporate
The AoA of WTO ignores the reality of agriculture markets which are qualitatively
different from, say, the market for cars or CD’s. Agriculture and national
food safety and security are at the heart of a nation’s sovereignty, and
its obligation to its own citizens to support the basics of life. Agriculture
is unique in this respect, along with water rights.
The AoA was written by the US-dominated agribusiness giants such as Cargill,
ADM, Monsanto and DuPont, to serve the agenda of these global supranational
private companies, whose sole aim is to maximize profits and market monopoly,
regardless of human consequences. Their focus is the domination of the $1 trillion
global agriculture trade. The actual author of the AoA of WTO was Daniel Amstutz,
a former Vice President of Cargill Grain, who was at the time in the Washington
US Trade Representative’s Office, before going back to the grain trade.(3).
Who controls WTO?
The essential control of WTO decisions, decisions which have the full power
of international law and can force governments to repeal local laws for health,
safety and such is held by private interests, by a global US-centered agribusiness
cartel. There are no public or democratic checks on the power of WTO.
On paper, WTO rules are made by a consensus of all 134 member countries. In
reality, four countries, led by the United States, decide all important agriculture
and other trade issues. As in the International Monetary Fund and World Bank,
Washington exercises decisive control behind the scenes. And it does so in the
interest of the private agribusiness cartel.
The four WTO controlling countries, known as the QUAD countries, are USA, Canada,
Japan and the EU. In the QUAD, in turn, the giant agri-business multinationals
exercise controlling influence, most clearly in Washington.
The WTO is designed to impose the wishes of giant private companies over the
legitimate democratic will of entire nations and duly-elected governments. WTO
has one mission: enforce rules of a ‘free trade,’ an agenda which
is in no way genuinely ‘free’ but rather suits the needs of agribusiness
Under the secretive WTO rules, countries can challenge another’s laws
for restricting their trade. The case is then heard by a tribunal or court of
three trade bureaucrats. They are usually influential corporate lawyers with
pro-free trade bias. The lawyers have no conflict of interest rules binding
them, such that a Monsanto lawyer can rule on a case of material interest to
Further, there is no rule that the judges of WTO respect any national laws
of any country. The three judges meet in secret without revealing the time or
location. All court documents are confidential and are not published unless
one party releases it. It is a modern version of the Spanish Inquisition, but
with far more power.
The EU banned the import of US beef treated with growth and other hormones,
and the US lodged a formal WTO complaint. There was a long report from independent
scientists showing that the hormones added to US beef were ‘cancer-causing’.
The WTO three judge panel ruled that the EU did not present a ‘valid’
scientific case to refuse import, and the EU was forced to pay $150 million
annually for lost US profits. (4).
The powerful private interests who control WTO agriculture policy prefer to
remain in the background as little-publicized NGO’s. One of the most influential
in creating the WTO is a little-publicized organization called the IPC-- the
International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council, shortened to International
The IPC was created in 1987 to lobby for the GATT agriculture rules of WTO
at the Uruguay GATT talks. The IPC demanded removal of ‘high tariff’
barriers in developing countries, remaining silent on the massive government
subsidy to agribusiness in the USA.
A look at the IPC membership explains what interests it represents. The IPC
Chairman is Robert Thompson, former Assistant Secretary US Department of Agriculture
and former Presidential economic adviser. Also included in the IPC are Bernard
Auxenfans, Chief Operating Officer, Monsanto Global Agricultural Company and
Past Chairman of Monsanto Europe S.A.; Allen Andreas of ADM/Toepfer; Andrew
Burke of Bunge (US); Dale Hathaway former USDA official and head IFPRI (US).
Other IPC members include Heinz Imhof, chairman of Syngenta (CH); Rob Johnson
of Cargill and USDA Agriculture Policy Advisory Council; Franz Fischler Former
Commissioner for Agriculture, European Commission; Guy Legras (France) former
EU Director General Agriculture; Donald Nelson of Kraft Foods (US); Joe O’Mara
of USDA, Hiroshi Shiraiwa of Mitsui & Co Japan; Jim Starkey former Assistant
US Trade Representative; Hans Joehr, Nestle’s head of agriculture; Jerry
Steiner of Monsanto (US). Members Emeritus include Ann Veneman, herself a board
member of California based Calgene before she became US Secretary of Agriculture
for George W. Bush in 2001.
The IPC is controlled by US-based agribusiness giants which benefit from the
rules they drafted for WTO trade. In Washington itself, the USDA no longer represents
interests of small family farmers. It is the lobby of giant global agribusiness.
The USDA is a revolving door for these private agribusiness giants to shape
friendly policies. GMO policy is the most blatant example.
Brussels also dominated by GMO lobby
The power of the giant GMO companies and US-centered agribusiness companies
extends to control of key policies in Brussels at the European Commission. Typical
is the fact that former EU Agricuolture Commissioner Franz Fischler is a member
of the powerful pro-GMO IPC.
For years it has been common knowledge among EU farm experts that grain policy
was not set by national governments but by the Big Five private grain traders
led by Cargill and ADM. Now the powerful weight of Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta
and the GMO lobby has been added. This is clear in the recent announcement of
a new EU program, SAFEFOODS, a successor to the controversial pro-GMO ENTRANSFOOD
project. ENTRANSFOOD was set up to ‘facilitate market introduction of
GMO’s in Europe, and therefore to bring the European (sic) industry into
a competitive position.’
ENTRANSFOOD, now called the more innocuous SAFEFOODS, claims to combine different
views on GMO food. In reality, its key Working Group 1, responsible for ‘Safety
Testing of Transgenic Foods’ consists of representatives not from independent
consumer organizations, but from Monsanto, Unilever, Bayer Corp., Syngenta and
BIBRA International, a consultancy close to agribusiness and the pharmaceutical
As well, Dr. Harry Kuiper, a Dutch scientist member of the food safety GMO
group of SAFEFOODS in Brussels, is Coordinator of SAFEFOODS. Kuiper chairs the
EU European Food Safety Authority GMO Panel. He also has also been leading the
vicious slander attack campaign to discredit genetic scientist Dr Arpad Pusztai
who dared to go public with alarming evidence of organ damage from rats fed
GMO potatoes and was fired on the intervention of Monsanto in 1999.(5).
The WTO today is nothing more than the global policeman for the powerful GMO
lobby and the agribusiness firms tied to it.
With the new German coalition government under Chancellor Angela Merkel
and Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer now officially on record supporting
the role of Germany as a future leader in biotech crops and GMO, the impact
of the latest WTO ruling on food safety in the EU and beyond has put European
and hence, world food safety world in danger.
1.Abreu, Marcelo de Paiva, “Brazil, the GATT and the
WTO: History and Prospects”, September 1998, Department of Economics,
PUC, Rio de Janeiro, No. 392.
2. GMOs and the WTO: Overruling the Right to say No,’
By World Development Movement, November 1999, www.wdm.org.uk
3. Murphy, Sophia, ‘WTO Agreement on Agriculture: Suitable
Model for a Global Food System?’ Foreign Policy in Focus, v.7, no. 8,
4. Montague, Peter, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO, The WTO and Free
Trade, Environmental Research Foundation in www.garynull.com
5. PR Operation on GM Foods again exposes EFSA industry-bias,”
Press release, 29.12.2004. www.gmwatch.org
F. William Engdahl is a Global Research Contributing
Editor and author of the book, ‘A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics
and the New World Order,’ Pluto Press Ltd. He has just completed the manuscript
for a book on GMO titled, ‘Seeds of Destruction: The Hidden Political
Agenda Behind GMO’. He may be contacted through his website, www.engdahl.oilgeopolitics.net.