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 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 11: 99: Battle for Free Trade
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Tuesday, 23 November, 1999, 15:36 GMT
Stop environmental destruction
We have already lost much of the planet's natural wealth

Environmental issues are likely to be a main point of controversy at the new round of world trade talks. Ed Matthew of the World Wide Fund for Nature argues for changes in the trade rules to give more priority to saving the planet.

As trade ministers from over 130 member countries of the World Trade Organisation gather in Seattle to agree a new agenda for world trade negotiations, they should pause for a moment to consider the following fact.

The battle for free trade
WWF research has found that in the last quarter century of this millennium, rapid trade liberalisation has been accompanied by the destruction of one-third of the planet's natural wealth.

We will therefore be doing its best to persuade trade ministers to examine the environmental impacts of trade liberalisation and set rules that firmly support sustainable development.

Rules in conflict

One place to start is to address the conflict between trade rules and Multilateral Environmental Agreements.

GM crops need to be closely regulated
Negotiations of a Bio-safety Protocol to govern the trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), broke down earlier this year after a block of countries claimed it would conflict with trade rules.

Other environmental agreements could also be challenged by the WTO, including the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement painfully negotiated in 1997 to reduce climate change emissions.

WWF believes the only way to address such conflicts is for the WTO to set up a new agreement to ensure international environmental agreements take precedence over trade rules.

Conflict with national legislation

WWF is also concerned that trade rules increasingly threaten to undermine national environmental regulations.

Forward thinking European environmental laws, including the proposed ban on cadmium batteries and asbestos, as well as a regulation to increase the level of producer recycling have all been challenged as unnecessary barriers to trade.

WWF firmly believes that where there is uncertainty about the environmental or health impact of a product, trade restrictions may be justified. This precautionary approach needs to be recognised within WTO rules.

Failure to do so has already resulted in the US challenging the European ban on hormone injected beef, and may result in a challenge to any EU scheme for labelling genetically modified food..

The US has argued that under WTO rules, such measures are illegal. The present WTO agenda is clearly one which favours the corporation more than the consumer.


The WTO must also do far more to break down the wall of secrecy which divides the WTO from civil society.

Unlike procedures at the United Nations, environmental groups and other non-governmental public interest bodies are not allowed to observe WTO discussions.

The WTO panels which resolve trade disputes are also conducted by un-elected bureaucrats in considerable secrecy. WWF will be pushing for the WTO to become a far more transparent, democratic and accountable organisation.

WWF does not oppose trade liberalisation, but it does oppose trade rules which harm our environment.

This is not green protectionism, it is simple common sense. With one third of our planet already destroyed, how much more can we afford to lose?

The trade talks in Seattle must be used by trade ministers as an opportunity to address this conflict. For the sake of the environment upon which we all depend, they cannot afford to fail.
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