Earlier this week, Andrew Pollack reported in the New York Times that biotech companies like Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Chemical announced through an industry association that they would be more transparent with the public about the chemicals and genetically modified seeds they sell. According to Cathleen Enright, executive vice president at the Council for Biotechnology Information (BIO), “We have not done a very good job communicating about GMOs. We want to get into the conversation.”
To move that conversation along, they’ve opened a new web site, GMOAnswers.com. Any move toward greater transparency from companies who have spent decades suing farmers, spending millions to prevent the labeling of food containing GMOs, hiring private security firms to break into their critics offices and steal information—not to mention generally bullying anybody who questions the safety and value of their products—should be good news. But like with most news from chemical and seed companies, it is another reason to worry that the public will be misled and the issues will be futher obfuscated.
At the same time big biotech shows its sensitive side by answering difficult questions, they are moving in lockstep to ensure that the EU-U.S. free trade agreement, the TTIP, will protect their ability to sell their biotech products without regard to local or national labeling and safety standards. In comments on TTIP submitted by BIO to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), the focus is on getting trade negotiators to harmonize the standards between the EU and U.S. on the very issues of transparency and protecting markets. Harmonization is a trade term of art that often indicates that strong regulations and protections are going to be taken down to the lowest common denominator.
IATP recently released portions of the EU’s initial goals on regulatory harmonization. In her introduction, IATP’s Karen Hansen Kuhn says, “Consistent multilateral rules on difficult issues make sense, but let’s make sure trade is put in its place. Rules that provide for a safe workplace, protect public health and the environment, and promote energy and food security have been lost in trade agreements of the past.”
The very fact that the TTIP is being negotiated in secret should be warning enough that something shady is about to take place. Many groups (including IATP) have submitted comments, but so far it’s been a one-way conversation. The only people who really know what’s being negotiated are the trade officials and the security cleared trade advisors (including BIO, which sits on the intellectual property rights committee). When we read through the BIO comments on the trade treaty, there are numerous references recommending that the negotiators look to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to bring the EU and U.S. biotech standard in line. It isn’t surprising: Chris Parker, in his expose of Monsanto in the Village Voice, reminds us that Michael Taylor (former vice president of public policy at Monsanto) was named by President Obama as deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine at the Food and Drug Administration.
If BIO and the trade officials want to be part of the “conversation” on GMOs, they need to be upfront about what’s really on the table in TTIP (as well as the massive Trans Pacific Partnership). Farmers and consumers need to be part of a real debate about how these proprietary technologies affect the environment, economy, health and culture.