Precaution all-round

meta-creation_date: Jun 20, 2003 Update: The NY Times reports that the US/EU talks have “collapsed”: No surprise. There’s no sanction for hypocrisy in international relations. Just as well. Because Australia andthe EU are disputing trade barriers in WTO with a sensitivity to each other’s faults exceeded only by blindness to their own. Along with the United States and several other countries, Australia recently joined took the first steps in a trade disptue with Europe over bans on the import of products containing genetically modified organisms [GMOs].  None of Australia’s exports are being hurt by the alleged EU ban: it’s apparently just a matter of principle. Cutting through the legal details, Australia accuses Europe of implementing arbitrary, a priori bans on GMO imports rather than controls proportioned to the level of risk established after a scientific assessment of the facts. Not true, says Europe. They claim they’re setting up science-based approval processes for GMOs; the legislation is in the European Parliament. EU leaders are pretty sensitive to these claims because public debate on GMOs in Europe, as in Australia, has a broadly irrational streak. They suspect they’re on a hiding to nothing if they loose control of the issue to the European Parliament and they are aware that the WTO case could limit their room to maneuver. The EU lost a very similar WTO dispute in 1997 and again in 1998. The WTO told Brussels to stop banning imports of US beef that might contain residues of growth hormones because they had no evidence—and were seeking no evidence—that the hormone residues remained in the imported meat or, if they did, would cause any actual harm. So there’s nothing wrong with our demand that Europe follow the WTO rules on the management of food import risks. But our rush to the defend the principle of scientific justification for health and safety controls looks absurd in the light of the broad ‘precautionary’ food import bans that Australia maintains at it’s own borders. Take the case of our Government’s efforts to protect us from European cucumbers. A few weeks ago, the EU started a wide-ranging WTO dispute with Australia that accuses us of precisely the same irrational excess of precaution—or worse, disguised trade barriers—as we have claimed in the GMO case. The big difference is that the EU’s complaint is about real beans not just ‘in principle’ beans. In its notice of complaint, the European Union points out that the Australian Government’s ICON database of quarantine ‘import conditions’ (read ‘restrictions&#8217)says that imports of EU apples, pears, raspberries, blackberries, bananas, potatoes are “prohibited entry into Australia because insufficient information is available on risk status.” Also prohibited—because the ICON database contains no conditions at all—European plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, cherries, strawberries, blackcurrants, redcurrants, lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, gherkins, aubergines, courgettes, marrows, tomatoes (other than from the Netherlands) and squash. The European complaint recalls, of course, that WTO rules don’t allow such a priori trade bans. They say that requests they made for import risk assessments were delayed for years or simply never followed up. There’s some independent evidence to support this claim. The Australian National Audit Office last year reported that the the Australian authorities were conducting 47 concurrent import risk assessments and had another 150 in the pipeline. Proposals are being examined in pedantic detail in order to document an standard of virtually zero import risk. So, in the two years 1998-2000, the Audit Office found, the government had completed just 24 risk assessments at an average cost of more than $400,00 each! To protect us from European lettuce? It’s important to recognize that neither side in these disputes has clean hands, because the cases alert us to some serious fractures in the regimes for managing the global food (and other) standards. Governments everywhere are coping badly with the management of risks as food industries globalize technology races ahead of full acceptance. But neither the WTO rules nor, for that matter, the provisions of the Cartegena Protocol on trade in GMOs or the Codex Alimentarius Commission on food standards provide governments with a recipe for reconciling trade policy and risk. Neither an EU victory nor our own in these trade disputes will solve the real problems.

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