Showdown in Sacramento?
Bush's Biotech Bullies Vs. The World
By Aziz Choudry
The Bush Administration, in the interests of Corporate America (how can anyone tell where one ends and the other begins?) is on the warpath again. Like its “war on terror”, it is fighting on several fronts.
Its goal is to force food and seeds containing genetically modified organisms into mouths and fields across the planet, by any means necessary. After brutally bombing Afghanistan and Iraq it “donated” food aid contaminated with GMOs. Now the “United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act” ties US international medical assistance for HIV/AIDS victims to countries’ acceptance of US food aid containing GMOs.
Claims that the US WTO challenge against the EU moratorium on genetically engineered (GE) food and crops is driven by (in Dubya’s words) “the great cause of ending hunger in Africa”, make me wonder if Bush and co. will re-record USA for Africa’s “We Are The World”. Just imagine. Senior US politicians linking arms, swaying and singing with agribusiness executives…. “There's a choice we're making, we're saving our own lives, it's true we'll make a better day just you and me”. Ugh!
This biotech offensive offers the world an unoriginal “choice”. You’re either with us or against us. Bush and his trade representative, former Enron consultant Robert Zoellick portray themselves as champions of the poor, standing up to the elitist European anti-biotech scaremongerers, who are denying food to starving simple Africans who don’t really understand much about anything. It’s US agribusiness to the rescue! Who said they were only interested in new markets and higher profits? Monopoly control over the world’s food supply – surely not? Billions of dollars in markets for GM crops and seeds? No way! Ah, the white man’s burden…
They will take their song and dance to WTO mini-ministerials in Egypt (June) Montreal (July) the Cancun WTO Ministerial Meeting, and beyond. But a major performance will be in Sacramento next month.
The Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), State Department, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), takes place in Sacramento from 23-25 June. The USDA calls it “2003’s premier forum for top-level policy and industry dialogue relating to agricultural technology.”
Neither are public events – entry is by invitation only. Agriculture, trade, science, health and environment ministers from 180 countries have been invited. So far, 125 ministers from 75 countries have confirmed their attendance. Hosted in Sacramento’s Convention Center, it will be the largest international conference ever held in California’s state capitol. US taxpayers will pay the expenses for ministers from some countries, including Afghanistan, to attend. Total expenses for the conference are $3 million so far, according to media reports.
Anxious to stave off and discredit planned opposition to the meeting, officials deny any relationship between the Sacramento meetings and the WTO. In an interview with the Sacramento Bee (May 8), Christian Foster, assistant deputy administrator of the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, claimed: "The WTO has absolutely nothing to do with it."
It may not be a WTO meeting but for the US government and agribusiness, Sacramento has everything to do with their global trade and investment agenda. Informal pressure can be just as effective in securing results as binding trade agreements. The US administration uses every opportunity to coerce the rest of the world into compliance with its economic and geopolitical interests, through its aid budget, its embassies, and through meetings like this. Sacramento brings together many of the same players – officials and corporations - behind the controversial addition of agriculture and intellectual property rights on the world trade agenda during the GATT Uruguay Round which set up the WTO. These agreements protect the corporate players that now dominate vast areas of the world’s food supply while undermining the rights and lives of small farmers, peasant and indigenous communities.
The conference opening plenary says it all: “How science and technology, in a supportive policy environment, can drive agricultural productivity increases and economic growth to alleviate world hunger and poverty”.
Other sessions include: “Food security and the promise of new technologies”, “Attracting foreign and domestic investment in the agricultural economy”, “Fighting Hunger and increasing incomes with biotechnology”, and “Combating Malnutrition, disease, and HIV/AIDS: Food-based intervention”.
As Hope Shand of the ETC Group recently wrote in the NY Times (27 May): “There is no scientific evidence that genetically modified foods are cheaper, safer, better-tasting or more nutritious. Lacking consumer benefits for its genetically modified crops, the biotech industry is desperately seeking moral legitimacy”. Expo exhibitors include biotech giants Monsanto and DuPont (Qualicon), CropLife America (whose members read like a who’s who of US agribusiness/biotechnology corporations), and DC-based International Food Information Council (funded by US food, beverage and agricultural industry and an advocate of biotech). Food irradiation corporations like Ottawa-headquartered MDS Nordion, and San Diego-based Surebeam (sponsor for the Expo grand opening) will also be there. Food irradiation, a technology which brings together the food processing, agribusiness, medical science and nuclear industries is highly controversial. US agribusiness researcher and campaigner Al Krebs writes: “Critics of irradiation believe it is really not only just a quick (and temporary) fix for poor slaughterhouse sanitation, but also a way of disposing of nuclear wastes by selling them to private industry and leaving the taxpayers to fund the inevitable clean-up costs.”
Agriculture remains a hugely contentious trade issue, with the EU and US in apparent stalemate in WTO negotiations. Many countries in the South are resisting pressure to make yet more concessions on a range of issues, including agriculture, saying that the system is based on double standards which favour the powerful, and that the promised benefits of free trade have not materialized.
The USDA, USAID and the State Department are advancing US geopolitical and corporate interests internationally, and a market model of development which has caused ecological and human devastation, both in the South and in the USA. These agencies work to promote biotechnology as a “solution” to hunger. USAID has been promoting agricultural biotechnology for over a decade. The title of its recent policy document, “Foreign Policy in the National Interest: Promoting Freedom, Security and Opportunity” speaks volumes about the agency’s agenda. Hegemony, not humanitarian assistance. Principled opposition to biotechnology on health, environmental, ethical and other grounds, such as African countries decisions to refuse GE food aid are viewed as a new “axis of evil” to be overcome.
The international peasant and small farmer movement, Via Campesina, accuses the US of “trying to usurp the process of the World Food Summit held in June 2002 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) by claiming that Sacramento is a “follow up to the Rome Summit.” Via Campesina has denounced the Sacramento meetings urging governments not to attend. Via Campesina believes that another "Blair House Agreement" between the US and the European Commission – may be under negotiation. This agreement broke the standoff between the US and EU during the Uruguay Round, and maintained support for corporate, export-oriented agriculture at the expense of small farmers, peasants, and food producers worldwide.
Industrial farming and the reorientation of agriculture to a corporate model is a human and ecological disaster. Under free trade, the dumping of subsidised (and often genetically modified) imports on the Third World is destroying the livelihoods of millions of farmers, many of them women, who simply cannot compete. The free market model which the US so ardently supports is behind much of the social and economic injustice which underpins food insecurity – not inadequate access to biotechnology.
The US backs international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank which force countries to deregulate and open up their economies, and reorient their agricultural production away from meeting domestic needs to growing cash crops for export. Via Campesina is campaigning to get the WTO out of agriculture altogether.
The fact that an official meeting and a business expo are taking place side by side in Sacramento neatly illustrates the cosy relationship between the US administration and big business. Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman is a former director of Calgene (now a Monsanto subsidiary) the first company to bring genetically-engineered food, the Flavr Savr tomato, to consumers.
When Veneman recently proclaimed that the WTO case against the EU represents “fighting for the interests of American agriculture” she clearly means US agribusiness. It is merely a different way of saying what Robert Fraley (co-president of Monsanto’s agricultural sector) told the Farm Journal in 1996 – “What you are seeing is not just an consolidation of seed companies, it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain."
While the Expo will promote US corporate agriculture products and technology, the Ministerial allows the Bush administration and US biotechnology/agribusiness corporations to lobby and bully officials and ministers of other governments to fall into line with their pro-biotech, industrial farming, agricultural trade and investment liberalisation agenda before Cancun.
Planting high-yield crops, maintained by imported fertilizers and insecticides reinforces farmers’ dependency on patent holders like Monsanto and Cargill, which increasingly insist on the use of genetically modified seeds and threaten farmers who generate their seeds saved from last season’s crop. The US wants to turn farmers into bioserfs and strip communities and countries of their rights to determine what they grown and eat.
As a January 21, 2001 Guardian article suggested, the “real strategy” of North American agribusiness “is to introduce so much genetic pollution that meeting the consumer demand for GM-free food is seen as not possible. The idea, quite simply, is to pollute faster than the countries can legislate – then change the laws to fit the contamination.”
Meanwhile in Sacramento, there is the usual media beat-up predicting violent protests next month…notwithstanding the fact that calls to action are explicitly committed to non-violent principles. Conference opponents include Sacramento community organisers involved in a battle to save the city’s oldest organic community garden from out-of-state developers, who see the local/global connections to the conference’s agenda to promote industrial agriculture, biotechnology and the corporate control over farming. Bay Area anti-war groups which have linked the war on Iraq, corporate US interests, and neoliberal globalisation also promise to join the Sacramento mobilization. Across the US, and beyond, many small farmers organisations, environmental and global justice campaigners see Sacramento as a highly significant meeting in local and global struggles for ecological and social justice.
While the US Administration perpetuates a racist worldview that people in the South are too dumb to make up their own minds about biotechnology, it studiously overlooks mass opposition to genetic engineering by small and peasant farmers movements in both North and South. Many US family farmers’ organisations strongly oppose genetic engineering. Over 70 towns in Vermont have passed resolutions opposing the planting of GE crops, and calling for the labeling of GE foods. In 2000, the City and County of San Francisco passed a resolution calling on the Food and Drug Authority, the Environmental Protection Authority and the USDA to consider a moratorium on all GE foods, urging that consumers be provided with information about the use of GE ingredients in food products
Not far from the conference venue, Sacramento’s civic square is named the Cesar Chavez Plaza. Cesar Chavez Park is close by. Ten years after his death, Chavez is revered as a David who stood up to the Goliath of US agribusiness corporations, environmental racism and social and economic injustice using non-violent direct action – and won. Who can forget the 1966 march on Sacramento demanding justice for farmworkers which he led and the grape boycotts which followed? With the Sacramento meeting only weeks away, I am struck by the relevance of his words from a January 1990 speech in honour of Martin Luther King. “The powers that be make themselves richer by exploiting the poor. Our nation continues to allow children to go hungry, and will not even house its own people. The time is now for people, of all races and backgrounds, to sound the trumpets of change”.