Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Food labelling debate

The great food labelling debate
By Lucy Sharratt
The Mark
July 26, 2011

After 16 years of bitter negotiations, the world reaches agreement on the labelling of genetically modified foods.

While consumer groups around the world celebrated the July 5 United Nations Codex agreement on labelling genetically modified (GM) foods, the biotechnology industry argued that the final document achieved nothing new. In fact, industry came close to denying there was an agreement at all. After 16 years of negotiations, these two radically different responses to the final document can be explained by the high stakes involved, arguably the future of global markets for GM foods.

It is voluntary and now technically “guidance” rather than “guidelines,” but the new international agreement on labelling GM foods, two decades in the making, was bitterly fought over. The biotechnology industry, with its initial power base in the U.S. and Canada, is adamantly opposed to labelling, afraid that, given the choice, consumers around the world will reject GM foods, as seen in Europe. The stakes were so high that the U.S. government – with varying support from Canada and a handful of food exporting countries, including Argentina and Australia – continually tried to stop the Codex negotiations altogether. After two decades, however, food safety regulators from around the world finally agreed upon a few words that have huge global import.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission is the global food standards-setting body of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. Most importantly, it is the reference point for food standards under the World Trade Organization (WTO) and is used in settling trade disputes. According to consumer groups, the new Codex document provides nations with protection from trade challenges over GM food labelling laws.

The World Health Organization’s own press office announced that the “Codex Alimentarius Commission (on Food Labelling) has stated that governments are free to decide on whether and how to label foods derived from modern biotechnology, including foods containing genetically modified organisms.” The announcement adds, “The labelling should be done in conformity with the text approved by the Codex Commission, to avoid potential trade barriers.”

The agreed-upon words that secure the freedom to label look innocuous. The final text simply states, “Different approaches regarding labelling of foods derived from modern biotechnology are used.” While this is far from earlier proposals, where Codex “recognizes that each country can adopt different approaches regarding labeling,” it achieves the same goal.

Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, a non-profit organization in the United States that publishes Consumer Reports, describes the outcome as “more of a huge defeat for industry than a giant win for consumers. Consumers were working to get guidelines for labelling, but the whole process was hijacked by this tie to the WTO.” Hansen, who was present at negotiations for over 15 years, says, “Industry had been trying to crush this deal since 1995 and they finally gave up.”

Trade challenges or the threat of them are powerful deterrents to labelling laws. Without the Codex wording, labelling laws would be vulnerable to a challenge at the WTO. Canada, the U.S. and Argentina have already set a precedent for a joint trade challenge in order to open markets to GM foods. Canada abandoned its WTO dispute over the European Union’s de facto moratorium on GM crop approvals in 2009, when it became clear that Canada had won the fight regardless, arguably partly because of the persuasive force of the challenge.

The European Union, Japan, Thailand, Korea, China, Russia, and Brazil, among others, already have labelling laws they want to protect. Additionally, Codex food safety standards are widely adopted by developing countries seeking regulatory guidance, and African governments in particular fought to keep the Codex negotiations alive and bring them to a conclusion. While facing various pressures from the U.S. and industry to accept GM crops and foods, African and Latin American governments are also under domestic pressure to label.

If vulnerability to trade challenges is no longer a disincentive to mandatory labelling, it could be argued that no less than the global future of GM crops is at stake. If countries in Africa start labelling GM foods, what impact will this have on the industry’s public-relations campaign to “feed the world” with GM?

The final text gives little indication of the drama and acrimony of the negotiations that produced it. Sixteen years of meetings with government delegations from 50 or more countries finally resulted in a few lines that introduce a list of existing Codex standards.

Industry is able to argue that the final agreement is just a compilation of texts because that is what it is called, and what it looks like. However, the two small paragraphs that precede the list of existing Codex documents have huge implications, as do the references to these other documents. The final text was relentlessly fought over and whittled down to a purposefully worded preamble and references to Codex documents, including on GM risk assessment, that themselves are the product of years of negotiation.

Canada’s supporting role to the U.S. at Codex was clear for many years. The Codex Committee on Food Labelling negotiations laboured for years with chairs from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and then Health Canada. The Canadian delegation encouraged the Codex committee to discontinue its work, saying that the matter should be left to the free market. At a 2009 meeting in Calgary, Canadian chair Paul Mayers proposed that, due to lack of consensus, the committee pause for three sessions.

However, public pressure in Canada helped turn around the Canadian government’s position. Mayers later played a positive role, chairing a special facilitated working group that came up with the final wording and pushing it to the commission for final approval. Canada eventually left the U.S. to argue its case alone, and the U.S. government finally gave up.

When it comes to international agreements, the devil, however, is not just in the details but also in the implementation. Apparently, spin also has a role. It is critically important how countries understand the implications of this agreement.

The biotech industry has been determined to stop labelling in Canada and the U.S., revealing how important this lack of consumer choice is to securing the future of GM foods. If the threat of trade challenges serves to deter countries from labelling GM foods, freedom from that threat may alter the global trajectory of genetic modification.

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