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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