Sunday, 29 January 2017

Will US force the UK to water down GM food rules in a Trade Deal with the USA?

Newspapers are already carrying stories about how the UK may be forced to accept GM food from the USA under a trade deal. But how realistic is this? The answer, ultimately, is probably no, but the probability is that the UK Government will start off by vacillating. This will re-ignite the British GM food controversies that exploded after the first US imports of GM food neared European shores in 1996.

American farmers will undoubtedly press the US Government to demand that the UK abandon EU rules about labelling of GM and to scrap rules which ban imports of milk and beef products from cows treated (in the US) with somatropin (BST). BST is a GM growth hormone enzyme that makes cows more 'productive'.

I actually doubt that the US will achieve a total victory here, although they might be offered some concessions.  The idea that consumers want to know if a food product is made from GM food is well entrenched in British consumer culture, and it is difficult to see how the UK Government could afford to row back from the labelling of GM foods, at least in principle. We should remember that it was the Daily Mail which campaigned vigorously against GM food in the late 1990s with tasty headlines such as 'Frankenstein Food Fiasco'.

There will be a lot of talk about how the UK will now be able to give authorisation to grow GM crops, but the fact is that the big retailers won’t stock anything that has to have a GM label. As a result there is little prospect of commercial GM farming in the UK starting anytime soon. In addition, a lot of US food cannot be sold in the UK since it contains GM food products and the US does not allow GM food to be labelled to allow supermarkets to know the difference between GM and non-GM US food.

It is perhaps even more unlikely that British politicians would be allowed to legalise imports of milk and beef from the US. There is plenty of evidence that cows treated with BST suffer adverse health effects, not least from the side-effects of increase in milk they are induced to yield, and the animal welfare lobby in the UK is, if anything, rather stronger in the UK than even (other) EU countries generally.

Ultimately the areas of conflict are likely to be what the trade negotiators will say are 'marginal' issues. But anti-GM food campaigners won't see it that way. You can see from the coverage of the run-up to the (now abandoned) attempts at a US-EU trade agreement and also the TPP (involving anti-BST Canada) that there were arguments about standards for testing how much GM food and BST milk there is in food imports from the USA. The UK will be under great pressure to water down the 'zero-tolerance' approach to food imports that demands certification on non-GM content that currently obtains under EU rules. The EU didn't give way in its negotiations, but will the Brits have the same resolve? Maybe, eventually, after some prodding from the Daily Mail and a campaign from environmental groups.

Another major point of controversy of course will be the adjudications mechanism used to decide disputes between the US and the UK in a bilateral trade agreement. The proposed EU-US trade deal fell down ultimately precisely on this point. Campaigners in Germany and other EU states pointed out that the adjudication mechanism would allow privileged access by multinational corporations to get their way over environmental and social legislation without any recourse to democratic accountability. Now, at first sight you'd expect the UKIPers under their 'take back control' slogan to involve rejection of such tyranny. Surely much worse than the EU which was at least subject to political pressure from democratically elected politicians? But no, because to some the 'take back control' slogan is but a cover for giving even more control over our lives to the corporations!

We can look forward to a big and long row about the UK-US trade deal!

David Toke is author of 'The Politics of GM Food' (2004, London: Routledge)


1 comment:

  1. Shrewd stuff Dave.
    I was involved technically back in 1995. US commercial aims are what they always were. There is a whole background for biotech crops and big pharma and pesticides, (sometimes the same corporations). It turns on proprietary 'ownership' of genetic resources and proprietary science. I just put a note on Ugo Bardi's blog before I read yours. I remember 20 years ago listing the 'impossible promises' claimed for crop biotechnology on a global scale.

    Another little nugget from the past also relates to 'improved food’, and might come over the horizon again. It involved nuclear matters. Like the GM issue there was a question for the big uk retailers. In this case it involved pesticide residues, particularly the legacy of persistent organochlorines that keep turning up. Proposed irradiation to clean up otherwise dubious food had the chance of altering the risk assessment (toxicity) of such residues. There was a chance of increasing toxicity by orders of magnitude. Trust for science is needed (e.g. climate science) but these proprietary guys are doing it no good at all.