The failure of the WTO summit in Seattle was many times discussed in connection with GMO in all media. Unfortunately very often such reports and comments showed poor understanding of their authors to problems that caused the conflicts of participants and to the powers that were behind the public protests. They reflected rather a personal view of authors. Nevertheless, such understanding is necessary for all who are interested in biotechnology as these problems and powers will play important role in the future of the field.
In order to help in this we present here a sum of basic principles of the WTO rules that are connected with the GMO market (in more detail they were explained in the May issue of our information bulletin BIOTRENDIn).
WTO is an organization administrating the rules of free international market. The rules are formulated in several international documents, e.g., Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, "Standards Code" which is of general nature. The most important document for agricultural products and food is Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures - SPS. It is supported by three other regulatory instruments - Codex Alimentarius (common document of FAO a WHO), Office International de Epizooties and International Plant Protection Convention - IPPC.
The Convention was adopted by FAO in 1951, amended in 1979 and 1997. The latter amendment reflecting the results of Uruguay Round introduced the International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures (ISPMs). They are not binding, however, measures in accord with them are recommended.
SPS gives the right to government to restrict trade when necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health (recognized in GATT article XX(b)) provided that the measures are based on scientific principles, are not maintained without scientific evidence and are not applied in a manner which unjustifiably discriminates between countries (including home country) with the same conditions. When the government considers that sufficient evidence does not exists to permit final decision, it can take precautionary measures. Then missing evidence should be looked for and measures adopted to standard as soon as the information becomes available.
Thus there are many rules that must be obeyed when a restrictive measure to the import is claimed. Special packing and labelling is also such kind of measure and should as any other be substantiated by scientific reasons. This is the source of problems in Europe. The request of labelling just from the fact that the crop was developed by recombinant DNA technique is based oh public pressure not on science. To provide certain "improvement" few scientists tried to dig from nothing some "scientific" data. This is the case of Arpad Pusztai and recently of Mae-Ho.
Our evaluation of the WTO-GMO problem
Most of the reports and comments on the WTO summit bring the personal viewpoint of the author rather than an information what happened. Thus we feel it would be fair to present our ideas concerning this topic.
We agree in principle with Dani Rodrik (MfDnes 8.12.1999) that market cannot be considered as an objective but as a tool to reach the aspirations of nations that might be different from one nation to the other. Thus, the market regulation should set general rules but provide enough space for these diverse ambitions of parties in the market.
This is particularly important in the market of agricultural products and food. This market has distinct nature different from the market of e.g., steel, cars or computers. It has to design the way through Scilla and Charibda:
On one side it should respect the specific nature if this market:
If this specific nature of the agriculture and food market is not recognized substitute tools are used such as mad cow disease, hormones in beef, and also GMOs.
On the other side the market rules must not fossilize the primitive forms of agriculture in the name of tradition protection or recognise wild fantasies fabricated by certain greens as serious arguments.
Another very sensitive point are democratic principles in regulation of GMO. In the situation when only one third of European population is aware that standard tomatoes contain genes it is very questionable how far the public can be included in the process of GMO regulation. Nobody asks public consultation when drugs are approved, however everybody feels qualified to decide in GMO approval. All members of Greenpeace were ordered from their centre to become overnight expert allergologists, plant physiologists, geneticists and specialists on weed control.
Claiming the market as a tool to reach each nations aspirations we must be prepared controversies to occur. It is natural that each part will suggest rules that support its own goals. This is nothing wrong as politics is like that. But it is incorrect to use power, demagogy or street vandalism in these negotiations.
It should be stressed that Seatttle and Cartagena are two sides of one coin: the former connects market with GMO the latter GMO with market.