The Fires Burn In Europe
Taking Stock of US Policy in the World Trade Organization
An ACRES,USA Special Edition
7 June 1999
By Steve Sprinkel (Sprinkraft@aol.com)
St. Paul, Minnesota
The fires burn in Europe, as the public controversy continues over
genetically modified agriculture, but the flames flicker along the
Minnesota-South Dakota border. Farm leaders and state legislators attending
the USDA-USTR World Trade Organization Listening Sessions in St. Paul came
out smoking on 7 June in an event attended by both Minnesota Governor Jesse
Ventura and North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer.
Afflicted by poor commodity prices, overseas disaffection for genetically
modified crops and the un-abated trend towards corporate consolidation and
the vertical control of agricultural products, northern farmers spoke openly
of the pain and distrust they face every day.
" I think that if we had been told five years ago that this new technology
would bring us so much grief, we would never have supported it," said one
North Dakota grain producer.
" People call this another Farm Crisis, but I feel like I have been in the
middle of a crisis for most of my farming career, and I don't know how I can
wish the present system on the next generation."
Farmers, farm leaders, and agriculture sector representatives-from corn
growers to barley malters to union leaders- met in Minnesota and told a tale
of regional and international farm crisis woe to officials from the USDA, the
US Department of State and the office of the US Trade Representative.
The event was hosted by Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gene
Hugoson. Neighboring state officials including South Dakota's Darrel Cruea
and North Dakota's Roger Johnson were in attendance. The Iowa Department of
Agriculture, host of the upcoming July 12th Listening Session, wisely sent an
observer to help plan for the Des Moines Session.
After a day mostly spent listening to agricultural public and private sector
representatives reading from the same script ( "level the playing field,
defend the GMOs with "sound science" and end-foreign- subsidies) the South
Dakota contingent closed the meeting on an entirely different note.
Supported by fiery South Dakota State Senator Frank Kloucek and Minnesota
State Representative Ted Winter, grain and livestock producers Bob Thullner
and Mark Ukert passionately underscored the affects and causes of the farm
crisis, blaming the multinational corporate seed and chemical sector for
betraying rural communities, and the US government for failing to diligently
review the scientific, economic and sociological consequences of
Many afternoon presenters asked why the US government was so strenuously
defending biotechnology policy when it has exposed farmers to much turmoil.
Instead of questioning the affects the new crops have had on rural
communities, officials continue to support the products manufactured by a
few politically powerful corporations. Although biotechnology remains
center-stage in this and other farm and food conferences, attendees also
discussed trade policy affected by foreign currency valuations, foreign
nation subsidies and policies ( particularly Canada's), and grain storage
Jesting in an acerbic Midwestern manner, Larry Green, a Minnesota farmer,
thanked the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service for defending his banana
production- Mr. Green reported that he and his wife have four ornamental
banana trees on their summer porch.
The US recently won a WTO test case against the United Kingdom and other
countries over a US complaint that European policies were detrimental to fair
trade- and the exports of US based companies operating in Central and South
America. Many viewed the WTO banana case as a preamble to much larger issues,
including the long-standing export impasse over hormone-grown beef and the
much-to-be contested acceptance of genetically engineered agriculture.
In summarizing the WTO banana decision, Jodi Slocum, a Wisconsin organic
grower representing Farmer to Farmer, an international rural
communities-oriented non-governmental organization, reminded the audience
that the US government is openly caught in an obviously defective compromise
when it prohibits the domestic application of materials that are nonetheless
manufactured in the US and exported for use overseas, on the very products
that the EU community did not want on fruit imported to member countries.
South Dakota legislator Kloucek is calling for the USDA to appoint National
Farmers Union President Leland Swenson to the US delegation attending the
World Trade Organization Ministerial meetings in Seattle, Washington in
November. Kloucek, aided by Dave Frederickson of the Minnesota Farmers Union,
farmers Thullner, Ukert and other upper Midwest region producers, said that
farmers need to be represented at the highest level since the policies that
are implemented affect farmers more fundamentally than the chemical and seed
companies that they now view as monopolistic transnational entities
responsible to no one.
However much the crisis confronting US family farms was described, Jim
Schroeder , USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural
Services, reminded farmers and their supporters that the World Trade
Organization meetings this fall will most likely ignore "ag-sector
consolidation, poor commodity prices, monetary policy, and GMO labeling."
The discussions instead will be confined to the criteria and protocols laid
out in the 1994 Uruguay Round that lead to the formation of the 134 member
World Trade Organization.
Responsible parties must therefore address their concerns according to the
WTO agreement. Although limiting, the WTO agreement is not an entirely
closed-loop endeavor. In order to reverse or amend WTO rules, current
concepts within the Agricultural Provisions section need to be addressed.
Among those Provisions, Most Favored Nation Status, which exempts the EU and
the NAFTA under a special agreement, is potentially at risk since these
continental treaties benefit traders and not producers. Dispute Settlement
within the WTO also is one area that is much in need of clarification,
particularly in the criteria used to empanel the three-member Dispute
Settlement Body. Generally speaking, the public needs to go to school on the
WTO and determine how it can be made more realistically democratic. (
Internal Support may be the WTO Agricultural Provision that offers GE
antagonists the best avenue to debate, define and confine the new technology.
According to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, Internal Support covers "
( which) have significant consequences beyond a country’s borders….Such
policies can impose costs on other countries and world markets by encouraging
overproduction or inducing production of specific commodities."
The explosive market-share of GMO crops can here be cited as an example of
"inducing production of specific commodities". GMO technology has long been
advertised for its now dubious yield potentials, and in particular, the
planting of herbicide resistant crops has lead to a swift increase in total
world acreage planted to them, in areas where they were never grown before.
Overproduction is a result. Over supply and lower prices can in this context
Internal Support is broken into two categories, named "amber" and " green",
ostensibly identifying them as "caution" and " permitted".
Amber policies include "price supports…(and) input subsidies". In this
category, one can more cogently argue that US government participation in the
development and commercialization of genetically engineered crops and farm
in-puts is at least questionable under WTO, and represents a conflict of
interest that the developing world in particular must be wary of. The US
government has invested many billions in the development of the technology,
co-owns a number of patents approved for its protection, and has openly
supported and defended biotechnology politically at the expense of less
controversial agricultural production systems, both in terms of cash outlays
and in public sector enterprise, i.e., the awesome efforts of the US State
Department, US Trade Representative and USDA to assure an unobstructed market
for products co-financed by government.
The St. Paul Listening Session was the second US event held in preparation to
the Seattle WTO Ministerial. As you will note by refering the WTO website,
the Ministerials are tantamount to the writing or adoption of state