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Wednesday, 1 December, 1999, 16:09 GMT
WTO 'seizing control of GM trade'

spray The WTO meeting sparked major protests in Seattle

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Environmental campaigners say the World Trade Organisation is set to undermine agreements on controlling genetically-modified crops.

The battle for free trade
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Friends of the Earth say the WTO is poised to assert control over trade in genetically-modified organisms (GMOs).

And they say early discussions at the WTO meeting in Seattle support their fears that it will sideline the protection of the environment.

Before the meeting began, a majority of European Union members said they were opposed to the inclusion of biotechnology in the proposed Millennium Round of WTO trade negotiations.

Pressure

Instead, they said, the subject should be dealt with by the planned United Nations Biosafety Protocol. This would allow countries to restrict the import of GM food and crops on environmental and health grounds.

But now the European Commission - which the WWF says is acting "under sustained pressure from the US" - has proposed the immediate establishment of a WTO working group on biotechnology.

The campaigners say this will effectively transfer negotiations on GMOs from the Biosafety Protocol to the WTO, whose drive to liberalise trade will then take precedence over environmental and health concerns.

And they say exporters of GM products will use the existence of the working group to argue for the suspension of the negotiations on the Protocol until the WTO has clarified its own rules.

No mandate

The head of WWF International's trade and investment unit, Charles Arden-Clarke, said: "Even as political leaders express sympathy for the concerns of protesters in Seattle, proposals are advanced by trade negotiators that fly in the face of those concerns.

"The WTO has neither the mandate, the competence, nor the public trust to work on this controversial issue."


A protester hurls back a police gas canister A Seattle protester hurls back a police gas canister
WWF says EU member states should reject the proposed Commission text as an unacceptable compromise.

The US says the establishment of the working group will not "automatically" lead to the inclusion of biotechnology in the WTO's remit.

But Friends of the Earth says representatives of EU governments in Seattle have confirmed to it that the Commission's concession "is a key step in that direction".

Downplaying the environment

WWF is also afraid that WTO members have agreed to put the environment into the hands of a working group that has to deal as well with competition and investment, which it says will "sideline" the issue.

Mr Arden-Clarke said: "Once again WTO negotiators are sacrificing public concerns to narrow economic interests.

"Environment, health and safety are not an optional extra, but a cornerstone of a legitimate trading system.

"Governments must understand that is a key lesson to learn from the protests in Seattle, and move these issues back up the negotiating agenda.
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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  Americas
Crackdown after Seattle battle
01 Dec 99 |  Americas
Does free trade benefit the poor?
01 Dec 99 |  South Asia
Indians move to guard traditional know-how
24 Nov 99 |  Battle for Free Trade
Roddick blasts world trade body

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