Presentation at the seminar “A Trans-Atlantic GMO Trade War: US attempts to use the WTO Against European citizens” organized by Friends of the Earth Europe on behalf of the Bite Back: Hands off our Food campaign and The Five Year Freeze campaign on behalf of the International Public Interest Amicus Coalition at the European Social Forum, London, October 15, 2004
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are clearly an issue for the labour movement and for the IUF because they are about rights, power and control. The evidence on the impact of GMOs on human health may be ambiguous, though in our view it is sufficient to warrant banning them on the basis of the precautionary principle. But there is absolutely no doubt that they represent a social threat of the highest magnitude. GMOs are a tool, probably the most powerful one yet invented, for consolidating the grip of the transnational agri-food corporations on the global food chain, and that alone is sufficient reason to oppose them. They are a corporate attack on the environment and biodiversity, an attack on food security and food sovereignty, an attack on the rights of workers and consumers. Keeping GMOs out of the food chain is in our view a matter of fundamental social self-defense.
Given the nature of this meeting I don't think I have to make the general case against GMOs, but I think it’s useful to point out a couple of things which are sometimes overlooked. We know that the vast majority of GMO patents embody herbicide- or pesticide-resistant traits. What is sometimes forgotten is that it is agricultural workers who are in the front line of exposure to pesticide poisoning. The World Health Organization estimates that every year some 40,000 people die from pesticides (these are unintentional deaths, excluding suicides) and a further 3-4 million are severely poisoned. We have to remember that the pesticide residues that understandably alarm consumers are only residues. They are what remain after the workers who apply them and work around them after application are directly exposed to highly toxic substances. Agricultural and plantation workers are continuously exposed to pesticides even after spraying, because in agriculture there is no clear-cut distinction between the living and working environment. So radically reducing and eliminating dependency on pesticides is a major goal for food and agricultural workers unions, for whom sustainable agriculture is not just a good idea but a basic question of survival and health and safety on the job. GMOs clearly take us in the opposite direction.
In Argentina, farmworkers are now applying undiluted glyphosate and attacking Roundup-resistant super-weeds with axes. After the harvest the fields are sprayed with paraquat, which is one of the most toxic herbicides on the market (and which the European Commission has recently lifted restrictions on in Europe!). This is the inevitable result of a decade of GMO cultivation. Pioneer Hi-Bred, the world's largest seed corporation, is currently testing a GMO maize which is six-times more resistant to glyphosate than Monsanto's Roundup ready variety. The plant is programmed to degrade the herbicide it absorbs, and can sustain non-stop herbicide application. The threat to workers and to human health and the environment is obvious.
I read the EU submission in response to the US complaint very carefully and there is NO mention of the impact of GMOs on the health and safety of agricultural workers with respect to pesticides or any other aspect of production. Nor am I aware of any specific worker health and safety evaluation in any of the national GMO reviews which have been conducted, like the UK crop trials which were generally considered to be the most comprehensive. Nor am I aware of any studies on the impact of GMOs on the health and safety of workers in the various industries which process GMO crops – milling, brewing, baking and so on. There simply haven't been any. The effects of GMOs on those who will have to work with them in order to bring food to the table has never been investigated and that is one more reason for banning their commercialization and fighting for a genuine moratorium on their use.
So what can unions bring to the campaign to get GMOs out of Europe and keep it GMO free? Workers can and do participate as individuals in consumer-based movements against GMOs, but through their unions they engage directly with the companies, through the collective bargaining process. Unions can negotiate collective bargaining agreements which commit food processing companies to GMO-free production. This increases pressure on the seed companies which are promoting them, the TNCs which are processing them and on national and supranational political bodies. In Italy, IUF member unions have begun this process. Italian agrofood unions have incorporated GMO-free commitments into their collective bargaining agreements with the brewer Peroni – a subsidiary of the transnational SABMiller, with the Italian pasta and baked goods manufacturer Barilla and with the transnational canned fruit and vegetable and fruit juice maker Conserve Italia. These kinds of agreements need to be extended and multiplied, and need to be backed with increased consumer pressure on the producing companies to commit themselves to GMO free production. This is one way we can strengthen public opinion in support of a moratorium, split the employers on this issue and stiffen political resistance. The companies – from agricultural to retail – have to become a primary target for anti-GMO campaigns, and we will try to educate and mobilize our members to play their part. It would be very helpful if groups outside the labour movement could be sensitive to our concerns as trade unionists and integrate the arguments I've made here into their own public campaigning.
Now I would like to specifically address the question of unions and the WTO complaint. one of the pillars of the US complaint is the use it makes of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, which excludes “production processes and production methods” from trade rules. This means that the social, health and safety, environmental and political conditions under which goods are produced are deemed irrelevant. Commodities with the same characteristics must be treated as “equivalent” products under national and sub-national laws and regulations. This applies also to labelling requirements, which can be treated as discriminatory.
Separating the production process and the products means denying the right to know what is in a product and how it was produced. This exclusion is a direct challenge to the labour movement's entire history of struggle. Unions have always fought for products to be judged according to the conditions under which they were produced. For us, and for a growing number of consumers, there is a fundamental difference between, for example, a banana which is produced by union workers and one which is produced by sweated labour working under the threat of violence. This holds equally true for GMOs. GMO soya is not equivalent to non-GMO soya, but that is precisely the distinction which the complaint is trying to erase.
The problem is that the EU's former moratorium is vulnerable on precisely these grounds. It would be consistent with the rules and jurisprudence of the WTO if the dispute resolution panel ruled in favor of the US. And that is precisely why we can't rely on the argument that restricting GMOs is WTO-compatible. It is arguably not. We have to challenge the rules of the WTO, and this is what the Commission is unwilling and unable to do. Europe's own agrofood companies have done very well under the existing rules – consider for example the subsidies issue – and Europe's own biotech industry, which opposed the moratorium and worked hard to undermine it, is eagerly waiting to cash in on new approvals for its own GMO products. The Commission's defense against the WTO is contradictory because it is under conflicting pressures – from consumers, who reject GMOs, and from the US government and its own biotech industry, who seek to impose them.
The EU submission on the US case essentially argues that there never was a moratorium, and if there was selective refusal of particular GMO products it was WTO compatible. This simply won't wash. The Commission can't and won't fight for a real moratorium, and this is the fundamental problem we have to address. Europe's own biotech industry would like to see a decision in favor of the US, which means that we have to fight on two fronts. The fact that the Commissioners were prepared to vote last month in favor of seed regulations which would have legalized GMO contamination of conventional seed stocks shows just how weak is the political will within the EU institutions to fight for the kind of regulations and laws we need to keep out GMOs.
Authorizations on specific GMO crops shouldn't be made by the Commission in any event – this is actually a matter for the ministers to decide, but they prefer to abstain from taking the necessary decisions and let the Commission do the dirty work. We've seen a similar process at work in North America, where both the Canadian and the US governments have been ready and willing to lose corporate challenges under the NATA dispute resolution procedures aimed at getting rid of environmental legislation in particular states which the federal governments were unwilling to defend.
So I think in summing up that two lessons emerge from this. First, that we have to work even harder to increase the effectiveness of nationally-based campaigns against GMOs, to ensure that the voice of European citizens and workers who reject GMOs translates more effectively into national and European-level political decisions which can defeat the biotech and corporate lobby on this issue. If we can't do this, Europe's own GMO lobby will subvert the institutions and processes which are supposed to be defending us.
Second, we have to transform the debate on GMOs and lift it out of the narrow confines of the WTO rules and the false issue of WTO-compatibility. The Commission's own submission actually contains a hint of this when it says “There is a serious question as to whether the WTO is the appropriate international forum for resolving all the GMO issues that the Complainants have raised in these cases.” This is really the essence of the issue. For the IUF, WTO rules which would restrict or ban labelling requirements and limit restrictions or bans on GMOs are in violation of international human rights instruments which in fact require states to take such measures to defend the health and safety of their citizens and protect the environment. The Biosafety Protocol to the International Convention on Biodiversity, which entered into effect last year, provides a basis in international law for rejecting GMO imports and their release into the environment. But since it is based on the precautionary principle, it can only be enforced over and against the WTO. A key question for our movement now is how to make effective use of the Protocol and other human rights instruments to build an effective defense against the corporate aggression embodied in the US complaint as well as to defend against Europe's own biotech industry and their political proxies. We hope that this meeting and what follows can help contribute to this process.
* Peter Rossman is the Communications Director for the IUF, an international trade union federation representing workers' trade unions along the food chain, representing some 12 million workers in agriculture and plantations, food processing, and hotels and restaurants organized in 351 trade unions in 124 countries. See www.iuf.org for more articles on these issues and about the IUF.