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September 14, 2006


Should a country have the unfettered right to refuse trade in such
products as genetically-modified grain or hormone-injected beef based
on doubts about their safety? Or is such "precautionary" action
trumped by World Trade Organization membership obligations?

[Rachel's introduction: The main aim of the corporate globalization
project is to deny national governments the right to make their own
laws, to prevent them from defining for themselves a "good society."
Instead the good society will be defined for all nations by the World
Trade Organization (WTO). The precautionary principle lies near the
heart of this debate.]

Biotechnology-altered foods are the focus of a World Trade
Organization ruling scheduled for release this month, a landmark event
expected to have a major impact on trade in agricultural products, one
of the largest sectors governed by the WTO.

The [as-yet-unpublished] final report of the WTO Panel in European
Communities -- "Measures Affecting the Approval and Marketing of
Biotechnology Products" -- rules on a dispute founded on differing
perceptions about what constitutes legitimate precaution when
regulating biotechnology.

Should a country have the unfettered right to refuse trade in such
products as genetically-modified grain or hormone-injected beef based
on doubts about their safety? Or is such "precautionary" action
trumped by World Trade Organization membership obligations?

In other words: when can a nation's interpretation and invocation of
"the precautionary principle" be ruled trade protectionism in
disguise? And which party should shoulder the burden of scientific
proof when the safety of a product is disagreed?

These concerns are prompting a growing number of international trade
clashes over the perceived safety of products derived from cutting
edge biotechnology and other sciences. Most recently, Japan banned
imports of US long-grain rice in August amid reports that traces of a
genetically-modified variety had been found in American crops;
European Union officials likewise imposed a temporary import ban
pending more information. In earlier clashes, Zambia refused a US-AID
offer of GM [genetically modified] corn over concerns that acceptance
would imperil the GM- free status of their exports to the EU. The
collapse of the Doha Round means that more of these types of clashes
are likely to end up in the WTO.

Averting such conflicts requires a better, common definition and
understanding of the "precautionary principle," among other measures,
according to the Japan-based Institute for Advanced Studies of the
United Nations University. In a report, it calls for international
agreement on common approaches to risk assessment and suggests the WTO
dispute settlement system is not the "best way in which to resolve
disputes in these important areas of policy making."

Prepared by Sabrina Shaw and Risa Schwartz, both professional alumnae
of the WTO Secretariat in Geneva, the report warns that disputes over
biotechnology products, founded in part on cultural differences, are
creating a "trans-Atlantic divide." It highlights similarities and
differences between agreements and organizations with respect to
precaution -- and the consequences of those differences.

According to Gary Sampson, Professor of International Economic
Governance at UNU-IAS and author of the recent book, The WTO and
Global Governance: "Precaution -- not science -- lies at the heart of
much of the public concern about the regulation of biotechnology
products. In the absence of scientific justification for trade
restrictive measures, the WTO will increasingly find itself passing
judgment on which regulations are 'legitimate' and which are
'unnecessary barriers to trade.' This will put the WTO increasingly
between a rock and a hard place to say the least.

"The relative weight assigned to science and societal choice in the
determination of standards -- or how "precautionary" regulations
should be -- underpins much of the possible future disagreement over
the legitimacy of standards relating to genetically modified products
within the context of dispute settlement in the WTO," he adds.

"The seriousness of these disputes and the importance of the
technology threaten great damage to international cooperation and
law," says UNU-IAS Director A.H. Zakri. "More and more commentators
are beginning to openly wonder whether the World Trade Organization
will be able to survive the full effects of the European Commission -
Biotechnology panel, for example."

"How a society chooses to manage the risks of biotechnology will be
affected by such factors as confidence in the regulators, acceptance
of new technologies, the need for the new benefits and general levels
of awareness," says Dr. Zakri.

He notes that several international organizations, often pursuing
different objectives, are rushing to regulate biotech, creating "a
complex policy and regulatory environment."

The precautionary principle is a central element of several
multilateral environmental agreements, a reflection of past instances
of underestimated and unanticipated impacts of new technologies -
perhaps most famously the industrial release of POPs, a family of
organic pollutants subsequently shown to persist stubbornly in the
environment -- and the use for refrigeration of chemicals later found
to destroy atmospheric ozone.

So far, however, the precautionary principle has not been adopted
authoritatively beyond international environmental law.

The UNU-IAS report notes differences between Europe and North America
are highly pronounced with respect to genetically modified organisms
and labeling of GM products, with European concerns about the risks
manifested in trade restrictions on biotech goods deemed "acceptable
or even desirable in the United States."

Differing perceptions about appropriate levels of precaution for
biotechnology was the underlying cause of the WTO dispute where the US
and EU disagreed about the safety of beef produced from cattle
injected with hormones to bolster their growth. This fundamental
difference will drive the US and the EU to the WTO Dispute Settlement
mechanism again. US industry has already started lobbying the US
Government for a WTO challenge to the EU GM labeling and traceability

Other earlier disagreements have prevented foods such as unpasteurized
European cheeses from entering US markets and past WTO decisions have
established that the lack of "absolute certainly" with respect to
science cannot be used to justify trade restrictions.

The UNU-IAS report says nations need to determine a common threshold
of risk "or, at a minimum, a common practice of risk assessment".

"What is lacking is a uniform description of the precautionary
principle in these agreements, leading some critics to argue that the
principle is overused without a clear understanding of its meaning and
consideration of its implementation," the paper says.

"The flexible definition of the precautionary principle may be its
strength, but also one of its greatest weaknesses. Several WTO Members
have noted in the Committee on Trade and Environment (CTE) that the
difficulty of further integrating precaution in the WTO lies in the
lack of an internationally-agreed definition of the precautionary

Says Dr. Zakri: "A clearer understanding of the various uses of the
precautionary principle or approach will contribute to a more cohesive
and harmonious approach to the regulation of biotechnology at the
international level and mitigate some of the damage that is threatened
by the current state of affairs."

Says UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of UNU: "There
is an important need now to take stock, reassess basic positions,
principles and areas of agreement about the precautionary approach
before countries initiate a new wave of disputes about biotechnology
and the precautionary approach.

"Such a discussion could not be more timely given the recent
controversy about genetically-modified contamination of US rice
exports, the suspension of the Doha round and the prospect of
countries re-examining disputes and grievances in the wake of the
upcoming WTO ruling."

The full UNU-IAS report is available online.


UNU-IAS contact in Japan: Mitzi Borromeo, Yokohama, +81-45-221-2314;

UNU Institute of Advanced Studies The Institute of Advanced Studies is
part of the United Nations University's global network of research and
training centres. IAS undertakes research and postgraduate education
on leading sustainable development issues, convening expertise from
disciplines such as economics, law, biology, political science,
physics and chemistry to better understand and contribute creative
solutions to pressing global concerns. UNU-IAS works to identify and
address strategic issues of concern for all humankind, for governments
and decision makers and, particularly, for developing countries.

United Nations University

Established by the U.N. General Assembly, UNU is an international
community of scholars engaged in research, advanced training and the
dissemination of knowledge related to pressing global problems.
Activities focus mainly on peace and conflict resolution, sustainable
development and the use of science and technology to advance human
welfare. The University operates a worldwide network of research and
post-graduate training centres, with headquarters in Tokyo.

Contact: Terry Collins 416-538-8712 United
Nations University