The WTO’s Rigged Game (9/99)

Should countries have the right to set health and safety standards for the food their citizens eat? Should they be allowed to exclude foreign-produced foods that don’t meet national standards? Or should these questions be decided by the World Trade Organization (WTO)?

Like it or not, these issues are being decided right now. In the latest trade dispute between the world’s two largest trading partners, the US placed sanctions worth about $117 million on European goods in late July. The goal is to force the Europeans to import US beef that is raised with growth hormones.

Ordinarily, the decision to place 100 percent tariffs on French truffles, foie gras, and other delicacies that most of us have never tasted would violate our international trade agreements. But, in this case, the US has the backing of the WTO, a 134-nation body that was created four years ago to negotiate and govern world trade. Ruling that Europe’s ban on hormone-treated beef is illegal, it authorized the US to impose retaliatory trade sanctions against the European Union.

Consider the arguments: The Europeans don’t allow beef that is treated with growth hormones to be sold in their markets, regardless of where it’s produced. They just don’t think it’s all that safe to eat. But most US beef is, in fact, treated with these hormones. So the government, at the request of the US beef industry, filed a complaint at the WTO, arguing that the ban was an unfair restriction on trade.

The WTO’s rules say that any health or environmental standard that affects trade must be supported by scientific evidence. Thus, it appointed a three-judge panel, which decided in March 1997 that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to justify Europe’s ban on hormone-treated beef.

An independent panel of scientists, assigned by the European Commission to consider these questions, reached a different conclusion. They found that one of the six hormones commonly found in beef is a "complete carcinogen." For the other five, they concluded that further study would be needed – although anyone reading the 142-page report would undoubtedly wonder why the US allows these drugs to be pumped into its livestock.

Well, if most people actually knew what they were eating, they probably wouldn’t – especially those most susceptible to the effects of the hormones, such as children and pregnant women. But there are no labeling requirements for these extra ingredients in US hamburgers.

Regardless of how one assesses the scientific evidence, shouldn’t the Europeans be allowed to err on the side of caution if they so choose? Most people would say yes. This case is particularly outrageous because everyone agrees that the law against hormone-treated beef was designed to protect Europe’s consumers, not its domestic cattle industry. And the law applies without discrimination to both domestic and foreign producers. Yet, the WTO insists that an unaccountable, three-judge panel, meeting in secret, can overturn a European law – simply because it has an adverse impact on trade.

Clearly the tail (trade) is wagging the dog here. And this is exactly what environmental, consumer, and labor groups warned would happen when the WTO was created four years ago. Its track record has validated these warnings. In 1997, for instance, the US Environmental Protection Agency weakened its regulations on contaminants in imported gasoline, in order to comply with a WTO ruling that found these rules to be an unfair trade barrier. The enforcement of the US Endangered Species Act – specifically, the protection of sea turtles – has also been compromised by recent WTO rulings.

From the point of view of big business, and especially large multinational corporations, these aren’t disturbing developments. For them, it’s only natural to see human beings and the environment as mere instruments for expanding global trade and commerce. They are quite comfortable with having these decisions made by a tribunal of an international organization where they can have the predominant influence – unencumbered by any congress, parliament, or other elected officials that might have to care what ordinary citizens think.

The WTO is their creature, and so it has been pretty consistent in taking the side of business against the rights of citizens and the global community. As more people are beginning to see, this is the crux of the problem. Institutions like the WTO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank – as well as commercial agreements embodying the same principles, like NAFTA or the recently derailed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) – are deliberately designed to transfer power over economic decision-making from governments, which are at least somewhat (and potentially more) accountable to their citizens, to unaccountable decision-makers.

These institutions aren’t likely to change their basic mission in the foreseeable future. But they can be stopped from pursuing it. In the case of the WTO, the next and possibly pivotal battle will take place in late November, when ministers from nearly 150 countries gather in Seattle to launch a new round of trade negotiations.

Preparations are underway for a massive "mobilization against globalization" at this meeting. Tens of thousands of steelworkers and longshoremen will join environmental activists from Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Friends of the Earth, AIDS activists, students, and international activists from Canada, India, Malaysia, Germany, and Mexico to protest corporate globalization. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted a trade lobbyist who compared the planned Seattle protests to the convergence of anti-war activists on Chicago in 1968.

The protesters descending upon Seattle will convey a strong message against corporate globalization to the world leaders there, as well as the international media covering the launch of a new round of trade negotiations. And when citizen activists aren’t in the streets (or forming a human chain around the convention center where the official meeting is taking place), they will be attending events at a parallel "citizens’ summit," where participants can learn more about the WTO’s record and the impacts of globalization.

Among the events being planned for Seattle are: a Globalization Teach-In at the Seattle Symphony Hall, hosted by the International Forum on Globalization; a rally and march organized by the AFL-CIO and fair trade networks in the Seattle area; and an international interfaith church service put on by the Washington Association of Churches. At the citizens’ summit, activists and scholars from NGOs and social movements around the world will address the impacts of the WTO and globalization on the environment, health, livelihoods, human rights, women, democracy, and more. There also will be plenty of opportunity for direct action: The Ruckus Society and the Seattle-based Network Opposed to the WTO are planning creative actions to draw attention to the WTO’s abuses.

Mark Weisbrot is research director and Neil Watkins is a research associate at the Preamble Center. For further information on this and related subjects, see the Preamble Center’s website at, e-mail, or call (202) 265-3263, ext. 274. For more information on events planned for Seattle and how to get involved, contact Margrete Strand at Public Citizen,, (202) 546-4996.