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Will a Secretive International Trade Deal Ban GMO Labeling?

The Trans Pacific Partnership is likely to be a setback for efforts to regulate and label GMO foods.
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TPP negotiators meet in Yokohama, Japan. Photo by NZNationalparty.

Negotiators discuss the Trans Pacific Partnership  at the Intercontinental Hotel in Yokohama, Japan, on Nov. 14, 2010. Photo by Pete Souza / NZNationalparty / Flickr.

In a big week for food politics, a judge banned the growing of GMO corn in Mexico, while the attorney general in Washington state sued a prominent opponent of GMO labeling for failing to properly disclose its financial donors.

Do leaked sections of the TPP's secret text suggest a ban on GMO labeling?

Just a few days earlier, however, negotiators met in Bali, Indonesia, and discussed a trade agreement that some observers believe could pull the rug out from under national and local governments trying to regulate the sale and import of GMO foods.

The agreement is called the Trans Pacific Partnership, or the TPP, and it's being negotiated in secret by representatives from 12 national governments and about 600 multinational corporations.

As the vote on Washington state's GMO labeling initiative approaches, the exact effect the TPP would have on GMO regulation has become the subject of increasing speculation, with some outlets reporting that the TPP would "outlaw" the labeling of GMOs.

Considering the fact that a former lobbyist for Monsanto, Islam Siddique, is the chief U.S. negotiator on agriculture, that claim seems plausible enough. But, as frequently happens when talking about the TPP, the answer turns out to be a complex one.

When asked if the pact would outlaw the labeling or banning of GMO foods, Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch pointed out that because the text is being negotiated in secret, it's hard to say. Some chapters have been leaked—including 2,376 highly redacted pages obtained this week as a result of a freedom of information request by Australia's Pirate Party—but much of the text remains a secret (as do revisions to previously leaked sections).

So, do the leaked texts suggest a ban on GMO labeling? "We have no specific knowledge that that's actually happened at this point," Corbo said, "but the possibility is there."

A more likely outcome is that the partnership would punish countries for enacting GMO labeling requirements and bans because it considers them "non-tariff trade barriers." That's trade-speak for anything that's not a classic tariff (meaning a tax on imports) but could still stand in the way of a company who wants to sell a product—say, GMO corn—in another country.

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According to the text of a leaked TPP chapter that covers investment, the pact would empower corporations to seek financial compensation for non-tariff barriers to trade—except, importantly, for ones that are specifically exempted. This already happens under NAFTA: A company argues in an "investor-state tribunal" that a certain law or regulation has cut into their expected profit margin, and the country must then pay the foreign company for that lost money. (Currently, 15 claims are pending under NAFTA and seek a total of $15 billion in damages.)

"We think of Monsanto as a big entity that's not afraid of us. But they are afraid of us."

"The tribunals that adjudicate these cases don't have the power to literally demand that a government change its policies," Arthur Stamoulis of the Citizens Trade Campaign wrote in an email to YES!, "but they can award payments worth millions and even billions of dollars, such that if a country doesn't want additional cases brought against it, it gets in line."

Colette Cosner of the Domestic Fair Trade Alliance noted that the TPP's potential impacts on GMO labeling are forcing labeling activists to think in a different way about their work.

"It's a testament to how long and hard the fight over labeling has been," Cosner said, "that even a rumor that all this work could be for naught is catalyzing people to think much more globally."

The issue also puts the secrecy surrounding the TPP process into sharp relief.

"We think of Monsanto as a big entity that's not afraid of us," Cosner said. "But they are afraid of us. They're afraid of leaking any text that could inspire people to participate in their democracy."


James TrimarcoJames Trimarco wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. James is web editor at YES! and you can follow him @JamesTrimarco.

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