Thursday July 22, 1999
Slowly, very slowly, consumers are regaining control over the food chain. The destruction of a farm-scale trial of genetically engineered rape by protesters on Sunday could prove to be the final straw for the biotechnology companies already wondering whether their products have a future in this country.
Just 10 miles from the trial site, Britain's newest farmers' market, offering local, organic produce, opened for the first time a fortnight ago, and sold out within two hours.
But something else has happened, far more significant than either of these events. Three weeks ago, the European Union routed an American attempt to force us to accept one of the most unpleasant technologies food scientists have ever devised. Its victory, a critically important blow for consumer rights, was greeted with a deluge of absolutely no coverage at all.
Bovine somatotropin (BST) is a growth hormone, manufactured by Monsanto. Injected into dairy cows, it raises their milk yields by 10 to 15 per cent. According to European scientists, it also increases udder infections, foot diseases and reproductive disorders in the cows which receive it, and boosts the level of insulin growth factor 1 in their milk.
This chemical passes intact into the human bloodstream and is associated with both breast and prostate cancers. Five years ago, the European Union banned the use of the hormone here, and forbade imports of hormone-treated milk from the United States. The US insisted that if the ban were not lifted by the end of this year, it would ask the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to force us to start drinking its poisoned milk.
The United States had every expectation of success. It has already used the WTO to impose punitive sanctions on the European Union for refusing to compel us to eat hormone-treated beef, and insisting that we should not have to buy all our bananas from the company which funds the Democratic Party.
America has found in our own scab state an indispensable ally: the British government has consistently sought to undermine the European position on beef hormones, in order to prove to Mr Clinton that it places the interests of US corporations ahead of the health of its own citizens.
The milk dispute threatened to become far bigger than the beef and banana wars. The United States has already demonstrated that it will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that Monsanto gets what it wants.
In 1989, a researcher employed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioned tests to discover whether or not BST is safe. He was immediately sacked for "slowing down the approval process", and the tests were stopped.
When the FDA discovered that Monsanto's own tests were grossly inadequate, it established a new safety category, approving BST as a "manageable risk". Last year, the FDA admitted that it had allowed the sale of the hormone without having seen any safety data. It had relied instead on a summary provided by Monsanto.
Exposure of this kind of collusion has seldom prevented the United States from forcibly exporting its revolting habits. The World Trade Organisation has to decide whether a country or a group of countries is excluding a product for genuine health and safety reasons, or doing so merely in order to protect its own manufacturers.
It relies on the assessment of Codex Alimentarius, the United Nations food standards agency. Codex is stuffed with corporate scientists and US government officials. It has ruled in favour of American corporations even when the evidence against their products is overwhelming.
But three weeks ago, Codex did something almost unprecedented. It made a decision on the basis of science, rather than politics. Safety concerns about BST, it ruled, could not be ignored. The United States was forced to drop its suit.
The decision not to poison the 370m members of the European Union, though ignored by every newspaper and broadcaster in Britain, could prove to be one of the defining moments of the end of the 20th century. The credibility of the coercive trade regime which has threatened the sovereignty of every democratic state on earth has already been seriously challenged.
Last year, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, a crude attempt to enable big business to overthrow national legislation, was defeated by campaigners. This week, the World Trade Organisation failed to resolve the furious internal dispute over its next director-general, and was forced to appoint both leading candidates.
Europe's victory sets the tone for a new round of trade talks, opening in Seattle in November. They promise to be so contentious that they could break the World Trade Organisation apart. I hope so. The WTO, established to protect weak nations from the strong, has been reduced to an oppressive instrument of American foreign policy.