Who is really in charge of the European Union's food safety policies?
Over the past few weeks, two EU commissioners have been sounding markedly different notes about genetically modified (GM) crops.
First, the trade chief Karel de Gucht insisted that the Union was not going to "abandon" its biotechnology policy as part of a deal with the US. Eager to put a positive spin on the planned trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP), de Gucht said that any "regulatory cooperation" stemming from the accord would be undertaken "without lowering the protection" to food and the environment.
De Gucht's comments implied that the Brussels bureaucracy is either opposed to GM foods or has serious reservations about them. That must be news to his colleague Tonio Borg. As the EU's health commissioner, Borg is busy trying to force these unwanted items onto our supermarket shelves.
Even though 19 of the Union's 28 governments last week registered their opposition to a GM maize manufactured by the American firm DuPont Pioneer, Borg appears determined to approve it. The only "justification" for his patently anti-democratic behaviour is that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has deemed the crop to be safe.
EFSA relies on "studies" undertaken by the biotech industry (hence biased) when assessing new products. Independent research calling into question the safety of GM foods - such as that conducted by French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini - has been rejected by the authority.
De Gucht's attempt to assuage public concerns was misleading. He knows very well that Monsanto, Syngenta and other firms determined to play a dangerous game with nature are frustrated with how a majority of EU countries have establish a de facto moratorium on planting GM crops.
EuropaBio, an umbrella group for makers of GM seeds, has a wish-list for the trans-Atlantic trade talks. It wants the EU to adopt the same kind of system for assessing GM foods as the American one.
The US approach is preferable, the association believes, because fewer questions are asked and less data has to be submitted when firms want to have their bids for new products rubber-stamped by officialdom.
De Gucht has been using different terminology depending on who his targeted audience is. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York last year, he claimed that the "level of ambition" for the trans-Atlantic trade talks needed to be high "because the more regulatory convergence we can achieve between us, the more scope there is for this model to influence other countries around the world."
European citizens are far less likely than guests of a corporate-funded "think tank" like the CFR to applaud such blatant pleas to turn this continent into America's copy-cat. So instead of "convergence", de Gucht is now speaking of "cooperation", a softer, more feminine word.
Strip away the semantics and we find that the agenda has not changed.
Both the EU and the US remain committed to establishing a specialised court, in which corporations would be able to sue and demand "compensation" from governments over laws or policies that put public welfare before the interests of capital. In trade jargon, this idea is known as "investor-to-state dispute settlement".
De Gucht has announced that he will invite ordinary people to express their opinion on this matter. A three-month "public consultation exercise" on this topic is scheduled to begin in March.
If de Gucht was more honest, he would rename the whole thing a "public relations" exercise. Despite boasting that the trans-Atlantic talks have involved an "unprecedented level of openness", his door has been mainly open to corporate lobbyists. Ninety-three per cent of all preparatory meetings which the European Commission's trade department held before the negotiations were launched last summer involved representatives of big business.
Restrictions on planting GM foods in Europe are exactly the kind of things that are likely to be challenged in "dispute resolution" courts, run by pro-corporate arbitrators.
A separate - though not unrelated - trade deal which the EU has signed with Canada also provides for the establishment of such courts. CropLife Canada, a biotech alliance, wasted no time in expressing its delight after that deal was clinched in October last.
In April 2013, Karel de Gucht dismissed as "all-in-all minor issues" the demands by Kentucky Fried Chicken that the EU lift its ban on washing poultry meat in chlorine. Less than a year later, he now wants us to believe that he is a valiant defender of food safety.
Who does he think he is fooling?
•First published by EUobserver, 17 February 2014.
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