Free Trade Fundamentalists

The world is being run by a group of fanatics, who’ll destroy anything for the sake of “free” trade

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 13th May 1999.

This time we’re in serious trouble. The United States might have beefed about bananas, but it’s about to go bananas over beef.

Today is the day on which we were to have been forced to start eating American meat laced with artificial hormones. Had the European Union done as the World Trade Organisation ordered, we would have found ourselves in the curious position of being forbidden to eat beef on the bone, yet obliged to eat beef injected with carcinogens.

Instead, because we have refused to allow the United States to export its disgusting habits over here, we have been threatened with an almighty trade war. While Bill Clinton imposed dollars520 million worth of sanctions when we disdained to buy all our bananas from a Democratic Party funder, he is threatening nearly a billion dollars’ worth as punishment for our perverse reluctance to let his beef producers poison us. Something has gone terribly wrong with the way the world is being run.

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) emerged from a global system established to protect the weak against the strong. Big countries would no longer be able to bully small ones into accepting their goods on whatever terms they dictated, while protecting their own markets from the small countries’ exports. Instead, world trade would be governed by a set of fair, comprehensible rules, allowing everyone to engage on equal terms.

But the post-war aims of equity and fairness have been perverted by the corporate lobbyists who now make almost every government on earth dance to their tune. Instead of defending fair trade, the WTO is forcing nations all over the world, strong as well as weak, to open their borders to the crudest forms of exploitation. The World Trade Organisation has become the patron of piracy.

The WTO’s beef ruling relies on the assessment of scientific panels stuffed with corporate nominees and US officials. They found that the six injectable hormones the US is trying to force us to eat exert no impact on human health. But they failed to test for the effects that these chemicals would have on the levels of natural hormones in the body. They failed to determine how the different hormones would react with each other. And they failed to find out what they might do to children. Now a new European study has concluded that one of the hormones is a potent carcinogen which places children at particular risk.

Some of the WTO’s provisions are designed to protect human health, the environment and animal welfare, but careless drafting and the shrewd devices of corporate lawyers have rendered them utterly useless. Trade, as a result, trounces safety every time.

In June the World Trade Organisation’s “scientific” panel will rule that Europeans should also be forced to drink milk from cattle treated with a genetically engineered growth hormone, even though the hormone has been linked both to appalling animal welfare problems and to elevated levels of breast and prostrate cancer in humans. Soon afterwards, the Organisation is likely to force Europe to allow the US to land aeroplanes here which fail to meet our pollution standards. Britain, meanwhile, has asked the WTO to prevent American states from boycotting companies trading in Burma.

Already the Organisation has ordered that the US Clean Air Act be diluted to allow Venezuela to sell filthy fuels to American refineries. European legislation banning the testing of cosmetics on animals has had to be shelved. Neither dolphins nor turtles can legally be protected from fishermen’s nets, and the US will use the next round of trade talks, starting in Seattle in November, to open the world’s remaining primary forests to logging. The Montreal Protocol protecting the ozone layer, the Basel Convention on the shipment of hazardous wastes and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are all beginning to look threatened.

Blair’s government is as culpable as Clinton’s. Our Ministry of Agriculture has sought to undermine the European position by welcoming the import of poisoned beef. The Department of Trade and Industry has listed among its priorities for the new trade talks “reducing the burden on business and barriers to trade represented by industrial standards and technical regulations”, which, in plain English, appears to mean abandoning pollution, safety and consumer protection controls.

The world is being run by a group of fanatics, fundamentalists who view free trade much as the Taliban view God: as an uncompromising tyrant which must never be contradicted. No ecosystem, no tribe, no nation is too important to be sacrificed on its altar. Their holy war is being waged against us all.