Big Business Hijacks GATT

By Wysham, Daphne | The Nation, December 17, 1990 | Go to article overview

Big Business Hijacks GATT


Wysham, Daphne, The Nation


Big Business Hijacks GATT

Behind closed doors in Brussels, top trade representatives from 100 nations are working out the final wording on a revised General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that will undercut existing U.S. regulations set up to protect consumers, workers and the environment. While GATT's proponents say the agreement is needed to erase existing barriers to free trade that hinder the international economy, the drastic deregulatory steps they are pushing will have much more invidious effects. Under GATT an obscure panel of scientists based in Rome called Codex Alimentarius will be empowered to review existing environmental, health and safety standards in all the signatory nations, with the goal of "harmonizing" regulations according to Codex's application of "sound science." Regulations deemed too stringent would be cited as unfair trade practices subject to heavy penalty.

Under Codex's working definition of sound science, for example, such longtime federal protections as the Delaney Clause - a 1958 amendment to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that sets a zero tolerance level for cancer-causing additives to food - would be replaced in favor of a more flexible "risk assessment" approach [see Nancy Watzman, "Taking the Worry Out of Food," December 10]. Residues of DDT on fruits and vegetables would be permitted under Codex standards at levels up to fifty times the current federal standard. Altogether, 42 percent of Codex's standards for pesticide residues are less stringent than those of the current Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.). Minnesota and Wisconsin would probably be forced to lift their moratoriums on the use of bovine growth hormone, a dairy hormone whose possible adverse health effects may include endocrine disorders such as dwarfism or allergenic responses such as suffocation in humans and degenerative diseases in cows.

Even more troublesome to many activists, Codex would likely overturn the international standard governing the marketing of infant formula. This standard was adopted by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) in 1981 after charges that Nestle Corporation's campaign to convince Third World women to substitute infant formula for breast milk may have resulted in increased infant disease and death.

In addition, the threat to environmentally sound farming and industry practices is a serious one. Under GATT, sustainable agriculture programs in states like Texas could be reduced if another country complained of "unfair competitive advantages"; local and state antitoxics initiatives or bans on nonrecyclable containers could be overruled for the same reason. The ban on raw log exports in the Pacific Northwest and in other parts of the world, implemented to protect old-growth forests as well as local jobs, would likely be viewed as "protectionist" and could be overturned.

Big business - especially the agriculture and chemical industries - has been closely involved in the current round of GATT talks, launched in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1986 and dubbed the Uruguay Round. Daniel Amstutz, former senior vice president of Cargill Inc., the largest privately owned corporation in the world and also the largest grain company, and a former officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.), drafted the original U.S. proposal to GATT. Among Amstutz's ideas, most of which favor agribusiness and large food processors, is the proposal that Codex Alimentarius step from its once peripheral, advisory role as a subsidiary of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization into the limelight as the final arbiter of "sound science" in the 100 nations that are GATT members. In this role, Codex would arbitrate trade disputes involving agriculture.

Whether the U.S. negotiators' Codex proposal is adopted depends on whether GATT negotiators arrive at an agreement and on whether Congress approves it. The final GATT talks are taking place in Brussels the week of December 3 with the participation of the ministers of trade for all member countries. …

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