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The secret to democracy
July 11, 2003
In late June the United States declared that talks with the European Union over trading rules for Genetically Modified foods had broken down, and America would seek a formal World Trade Organisation panel investigation into the fairness of the European ban against such products.
The US insists that scientifically re-configured foods are perfectly safe, and the Europeans' opposition and scare-mongering over 'Frankenfoods' is simply a plot to stall American agri-businesses. Notwithstanding the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which endorsed the go-slow approach, the US would seek a ruling to force open Europe's markets.
Indeed, some supermarkets in Europe carry a limited number of genetically altered products, labelled to show genetically altered origins. And early this month, the EU passed legislation permitting the sale of bio-engineered foods if they are properly labelled.
Under this standard, surely American agribusiness corporations could gain access to European markets without prolonged fisticuffs in Geneva -- right?
But here the American argument turned too clever by half. US trade negotiators insist that affixing labels on genetically modified products would subject American products to unfair competition, because consumers might assume that they are unsafe, even though they are perfectly edible.
Therefore, what is really needed is not only the removal of bans on altered foods, but in addition any labelling requirements must also be done away with!!
The essence of the American argument is that the buyer must not know which of the foods she consumes contain genetically modified material because if she did, she might change her buying behaviour to select GM-free foods. This is free trade from the Josef Stalin school of government and economics -- from leaders who already know what is good for their people, and treat their citizens' informed consent as an unnecessary irritant!
In my world, secrecy doesn't breed trust. I recall the Seven Dwarfs -- the heads of America's tobacco companies -- testifying in Congress that to their knowledge, tobacco was not an addictive substance, the evidence from their own science labs to the contrary.
I recall the Nike executives who insisted that the locations of their factories in Asia could be not disclosed to independent labour organisations because such information would hurt their competitiveness.
I recall representatives of our Parliament insisting that voters do not have the right to knowledge of their criminal backgrounds or financial dealings. I recall the assurances from our bureaucrats waving the flag for Monsanto -- who declared the Bt Cotton field trials in India were entirely satisfactory, but not open to scrutiny.
And Enron was all gas, although not in the way its executives first claimed. In each case, it turned out that the secrecy was just a convenient cover for despicable conduct, and a necessary mechanism to thwart the public interest shamelessly. Rather than back their claims by subjecting them to independent scrutiny, the proponents simply shut citizens out completely.
When agri-businesses no longer seek to keep their research on genetic crops confidential, when they actually conduct multi-season field trials, when those trials are assessed by independent scientists, then the time to trust their claims of safety may arrive. But not yet.
Back home in India, the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee has turned into the handmaiden of agribusiness; rather than conduct independent appraisals it merely parrots the lines of the businesses themselves. No matter how advantageous the outcome of scrutiny by such entities, then, the process itself is too contaminated to hope that it can consistently promote the public good.
Skepticism is therefore the citizens' last defence against unethical or criminal conduct behind the closed doors.
Interlinking rivers? Not a problem, provided it is public knowledge who conducted the feasibility studies, why none of the feasibility studies came back rated infeasible, who is bidding for the construction contracts, which lending institutions are involved, who will control the water supplies in local communities, how many people will be displaced, what will be their
Show me, and I can judge for myself how feasible it all is.
Community groups around India are discovering this tool, and powerfully employing Right to Information laws to their advantage. RTI laws in some states, such as Delhi, provide for salaries to be deducted from state employees who provide false information; under such personal threat even conniving bureaucrats are quickly turned around.