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Friday, 12 November, 1999, 16:15 GMT
More 1 14/11/99
The World Trade Organisation
From the corn fields and cattle farms of America, to a Tesco in the suburbs is a long way, but the food that's grown in the US may well end up in your TV dinners at the local supermarket. Or then again, if the European Union bans these foods, it may not. Such EU bans have been the subject of trade rows judged by the World Trade Organisation, the global policeman of free trade.
Most American beef is produced using growth hormones, and Europe has since 1989 banned such beef, because of a belief that eating such meat could pose a risk of cancer and other health problems. You can't buy this beef anywhere in the EU. The Americans, angry, took the case to court, to the trade judges of the WTO. Europe responded with scientific arguments about the risk of such beef, but the WTO found in America's favour and decided the EU had put up an unjustified barrier to trade. The EU has refused to lift the ban and is conducting more tests to try to prove there's a risk to health. But what does this mean to the farmers involved?
Just an hour's drive from the US capital, Gray Coyner manages a herd of between 300 and 600 black Aberdeen Angus cattle on a farm of more than 3 thousand acres. Gray is a large kindly man, whose family has been in farming for seven generations. Each morning he goes out in a four-wheel drive over the rolling Virginia hills to search for newborn calves. When he finds one, he fends off the angry mother cow while tagging the calf's ear and giving its shots of vitamins. But in a year's time, he'll give the calf another shot - an implant in the ear which will release growth hormones into its system. As far as Gray is concerned, using hormones is no big deal. He says;
And he argues that if he thought the beef wasn't safe, he wouldn't feed it to his own family.
An entirely different perspective comes from Gray's counterpart two thousand miles away, Martin Tilbrook, who raises white Charolais cattle on his farm not far from the M25 in Buckinghamshire. Every day, just like Gray, Martin has his own routine. He takes his best young bulls and weighs them to see how much they've grown. He can't use hormones to raise his cattle, and he's quite happy about that; in fact he argues his animals weighst comapre well with American cattle which have been implanted with hormones. But he's looked up the US Agriculture Department's website, to see the economic advantages Gray enjoys, and he's impressed.
"For every pound you spend on an implant, you can get 15 back. Now that's an enormous margin to earn. Most farmers today, if they're offered that, would have to think about it. And it's probably why Americans do do it. But as long as the public in America accept that, then they'll carry on selling hormone beef. In Europe, if I told people here that I was going to spend £1 per implant, to get £15 back, because that's what I wanted to do, I think I'd have trouble selling my beef."
But Martin is clear that, even if he could use hormones, he wouldn't do so, because his customers would be put off.
But the beef row could be merely a curtain-raiser to a far bigger trade battle, this time over the highly controversial issue of genetically modified crops. This summer the EU effectively put a moratorium on approving any new varieties of GM seeds for use in Europe. John Richardson, the deputy head of the EC mission to the United States, explains why. "I think the reason for that is simply that our governments have noticed the rising concern of consumers, and are reacting to that. They're- less certain than they were, that they should be approving these products, and therefore they are taking things more cautiously. They want more information about them, and they're not prepared to take decisions quickly, because they want to be sure those decisions are right."
That's held up the approval of products from companies like the US giant Monsanto. The body which represents such companies, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, is furious. It's lobbying the US government to take the case to the World Trade Organisation. Dr Michael Phillips from BIO told me:
The approval of GM crops will be discussed at the next big meeting of the WTO in Seattle at the end of November, when the next big round of global trade talks is launched. It's bound to be a subject of fierce debate. The US Trade Representative, Charlene Barshevsky, says Europe has set dangerous precedents by breaking world trade rules.
"Retaliation is very much a last resort. But the important point is that a Europe which does not comply with the rules, undermines the very multilateral system it believes it is upholding. And it's extremely, extremely dangerous for the global community in general."
World trade has never been so political. Meanwhile cattle farmers Gray Coyner and Martin Tilbrook continue to get up early and tend their herds, and wait for the trade battles to be played out in arenas far from their quiet farms.
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