Bilateral biosafety bullies

GRAIN and the African Centre for Biosafety, October 2006

, by Grain

How corporations use bilateral trade channels to weaken biotech regulations

The agribusiness sector has been struggling to respond to worldwide opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods ever since farmers started sowing the laboratory-engineered seeds in the mid-1990s. Transnational corporations want weak and predictable international standards that do not restrict trade in their products. But social resistance to GM food is throwing up all kinds of complications. From the mushrooming of local “GM-free zones” and consumer boycotts of GM foods to national and even local GM labelling legislation, the regulatory landscape for agricultural biotechnology is in constant flux, with direct consequences for corporate bottom lines. The situation is particularly problematic for the small cartel that controls the global grain trade. Yet, rather than let go of GM crops in the face of such resistance, they are aggressively sabotaging any process through which governments might autonomously regulate GM food or feed trade. They are doing this together with the GM seed and pesticide companies, applying pressure wherever they can - in multilateral fora and, increasingly, through bilateral channels.

The growing use of bilateral spaces as a means to exert policy pressure is not unique to agricultural biotechnology. It is happening in all sectors, especially through the explosive rise in free trade agreements (FTAs), which are filling the vacuum left by the breakdown in global trade talks at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Through bilateral trade deals and the oversight structures they create, corporations get direct, behind-the-scenes access to foreign governments, backed by the political clout of their home country’s flag. The resulting arrangements inevitably serve two basic needs of the corporations: strengthened ownership over assets (through intellectual property and investors’ rights) and regulatory standards tailored to their interests (through health and safety norms). This briefing looks at how and why corporations are relying increasingly on the bilateral trade arena to shape worldwide regulatory policy-making over GM food and feed.