Free Trade, the Environment, and Biotech

Some of the biggest winners from North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have been the agribusiness and biotech industries. These corporations’ unhealthy grip on consumers and farmers will only advance with the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The widespread implementation of Genetically Engineered (GE) crops throughout the Americas will likely accelerate corporate consolidation of the agriculture sector, provoke pervasive impacts on human health, and further destroy the environment, already on the brink of collapse.

A Bill of Rights for Agribusiness?

One of the most hotly contested sections to NAFTA has been Chapter 11, a virtual Bill of Rights for corporations. Chapter 11 allows corporations to sue governments for “damages” if a government law affects their profits. This undermined the sovereignty of democratically elected governments.

A Quebec law banning specific pesticides reveals how Chapter 11 clauses—which are set to be included in the FTAA—undermine environmental protection. Quebec laws ban a popular weed killer called 2,4-D that is considered a possible human carcinogen, and shown to adversely affect the immune system and reproductive functions in humans, among other impacts. But now a corporate lobbying group representing some of the makers of the pesticide are now threatening to challenge the law by suing the Canadian government under NAFTA’s Chapter 11. The provincial government of Quebec and Canadian taxpayers has been given a harsh choice: face paying the corporations millions of dollars, or repeal the law. Similar cases could speed the introduction of GE crops. Several states and municipalities in the Americas—from Oregon to Mato Groso, Brazil—have passed anti-GE legislation. These statutes will no doubt come under heavy fire from corporations under the FTAA. Any expansion of Chapter 11 through the FTAA will further threaten local, state and national governments’ ability to enact legislation to protect their citizens and environment.

Biopirates: on your mark, get set, go!

In the last decade, the Americas and its biodiversity have been targeted by “life science” corporations (the growing consolidation of pharmaceutical, agrichemical and seed corporations) in search of “green gold.” These corporations have pillaged humankind’s patrimony of traditional knowledge and biodiversity to create and patent drugs and agriculture products. The quest to develop and patent biodiversity, especially medicinal plants and crops, is threatening our food security, access to health care and the biological and cultural diversity of the Americas. The FTAA Intellectual Property Rights chapter will require that member countries allow the patenting of life forms and the extension of US Life Science patents across the continent. Member countries will be unable to restrict or deny corporations’ access to biological riches.

Additional reading: Biopiracy: A New Threat to Indigenous Rights and Culture in Mexico

ADM/Cargill: Control from seed to supermarket

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill together control roughly two thirds of US corn and soy exports. These two super powers have benefited from the lion’s share of US government agriculture subsidies, allowing them to consolidate and expand their market share throughout the continent. ADM, for example, owns 22 percent of Maseca, Mexico’s largest corn meal producer, which is now invading South and Central America. In addition, both ADM and Cargill are involved in joint ventures with life science corporations, Novartis and Monsanto, respectively, further extending their monopolistic control. ADM and Cargill have generally refused to segregate GE from non-GE crops, eliminating consumer choice and imposing GE foods on consumers.

GE food labeling

Despite the fact that independent polls in virtually every country on the planet demonstrate that people want GE foods labeled, corporations and national governments have refused to do so. With the FTAA, labeling laws will be “harmonized” to the low standards of the US—i.e., no labels for GE foods.

GE contamination

GE crops are being proposed as not only the silver bullet solution to global hunger, but also the only option for agri-economic development for the hemisphere. However, GE crops have not been adequately tested by the US Department for Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration. Impacts on the human health include, but are not limited to, allergic reactions, increased food toxicity and antibiotic resistance. As demonstrated by the genetic contamination of native corn varieties in Mexico discovered in September 2001, GE crops represent a virtual “Pandora’s Box” that has already blown open. The genetic contamination of native Mexican corn varieties by genetically engineered versions was largely a result of the introduction of nonsegregated, subsidized GE corn from the United States and NAFTA.

The expansion of GE crops will accelerate environmental destruction. Aside from the environmental catastrophe of genetic contamination, GE crops are provoking more obvious environmental impacts. Greenpeace has documented the accelerated deforestation in Argentina as a result of widespread GE soy cultivation.

Centers of Origin, Mega-diverse countries

Latin America is one of the most biologically and culturally diverse regions on the planet. Dozens of crops have been developed and domesticated by Indigenous peoples over the last 10,000 years, including corn and potatoes, two of the world’s most important crops. Mexico alone is the center of origin and diversity for some 112 crops, including tomatoes, beans and peppers. The introduction of Genetically Engineered crops into these regions threatens the long-term viability of not only the crop itself, but the ecosystem as whole. Additionally, 7 of the world’s 12 mega-diverse countries, (Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica and Colombia) are found in the Americas. “Mega-diversity” countries represent the majority of the world’s biodiversity and surviving Indigenous peoples, the true guardians and developers of biodiversity.

Un-kept promises, peeks at the future

“Free trade” agreements to date have been little more than code words for US business expansion across the globe. In theory, these agreements assume a level playing field between partners. However the United States has yet to follow the rules. Just recently, the US Congress approved a $70 billion agricultural subsidy for the next 10 years. This largely benefits corporate agribusiness while undermining small farmers both in the US and across the globe.

One of the most glaring attacks on food security and agribiodiversity has been US corn exports to Mexico under NAFTA. Import quotas were established under NAFTA to protect Mexico’s corn producers for up to 15 years, applying high tariffs on imports exceeding those tariffs. However the quotas were lifted within three years, paving the way for millions of tons of corn to be dumped on Mexico. The corn imports in Mexico have displaced at least 500,000 farmers and is steadily eroding the genetic diversity of thousands varieties of native corn varieties. The FTAA will open up national and local markets, already vulnerable as a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment programs and volatile international market.

Legislative vacuum

The FTAA, while expanding the concept of “trade” to include services, excludes any mention of consumer rights, environmental protection or indigenous right In fact, the FTAA directly contradicts important international legislation designed to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples and biodiversity, like International Labor Organization Convention 169 and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Unlike NAFTA, which included token environmental and labor side agreements, the FTAA completely disregards international law, while undercutting national and local legislation. Of particular importance is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, designed to regulate the cultivation and trade of Genetically Modified Organisms.