Monday, July 31, 2006

Ripping up the rulebook

Ripping up the rulebook

Bilateral and unilateral deals are the new avatars of 'free trade' and guarantors of corporate rule.

July 27, 2006 09:45 AM

The Doha-round negotiations collapsed once again at the mini-ministerial in Geneva on July 23 2006. Martin Khor of Third World Network reports from Geneva that when asked whether the Doha round was dead or in intensive care, Kamal Nath, India's commerce minister, said it was somewhere between intensive care in hospital and the crematorium.

Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner told the press after the suspension of World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations: "We have missed the last exit on the motorway."

The US, by refusing to reduce its agricultural subsidies, is being identified by all as being responsible for the collapse of talks. The US and its corporations were the driving force behind the two agreements of the Uruguay round that have had the biggest impact on the poor of the developing world. The Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement has increased the cost of seeds and medicine by promoting monopolies.

Thousands of Indian farmers have committed suicide because of debts resulting from a new dependence on costly yet unreliable hybrids sold by Monsanto and its Indian partners.
And the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) has destroyed the agricultural livelihoods of millions of peasants and the food security of the world's poor.

The willingness of the US to allow the Doha-round negotiations to grind to a halt by showing inflexibility in offering to reduce distorting farm subsidies in exchange for increased market access is not because agricultural market access is no longer of interest to the US.

The US does not have to give up anything multilaterally because it is getting market access bilaterally, often with "non-agreements" such as the US-India Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, which is promoting GMOs, agricultural imports and the entry of Wal-Mart into Indian retail. Monsanto, Wal-Mart and ADM are on the board of the US-India initiative.

US aid is interfering directly in India's GM policies, and has financed the push to commercialise Bt Brinjal, which would be the first GM food crop approved for large-scale commercial trials and seed production in India.

While India's bio-safety assessment framework has no reference to the unscientific "substantial equivalence" principle (a principle promoted in the US to avoid looking for the unique biological impacts of GM foods), the "substantial equivalence" is the basis of Bt Brinjal data submitted by Monsanto-Mahyco to the genetic engineering approval committee (GEAC), the statutory body for granting approvals for GMOs. The virus of bio-safety deregulation is thus being subtly introduced into India. GMOs are spreading bilaterally without the WTO, which had to be used against Europe in the US-EU GMO dispute.

The US biotech agenda is also being internalised into India's agricultural policy. The Planning Commission, India's highest planning body, headed by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, is appointing a non-resident, the US-based Dr Deshpal Verma, professor of genetics and biotechnology at Ohio, to head a cell to promote GMOs in agriculture and increase the role of global corporations such as Monsanto in the farm sector. Bilateral deals are thus mutating into unilateral policies in a process referred to as "autonomous liberalisation."

US agribusinesses such as Cargill and ADM no longer need the WTO's market access rules to capture India's markets. As part of the Bush-Singh agreement, India has been influenced to import wheat, even though there was enough wheat produced in India. Domestic markets, too, have been captured by multinationals such as Cargill, Canagra, Lever and ITC.

India's food security is being systematically dismantled. Food prices have increased dramatically, and with them, hunger and malnutrition. While being presented as an economic power and the new poster child of globalisation, India now is the home to a third of the world's malnourished children. And the problem of hunger will grow as peasants are pushed off the land and food prices increase.

Meanwhile, corporations such as Wal-Mart are trying to grab India's retail market, an informal sector employing more than 200 million people. Wal-Mart is trying to find a way to capture this large market, and has succeeded in getting foreign direct investment (FDI) pushed through in retail. It is also trying to partner up with Reliance Industry Ltd (RIL), which is planning to build new superstores in 784 Indian towns and 1,600 farm supply hubs, and to move the produce with a 40-plane air cargo fleet.

The Reliance group has also become the largest land-grabber in India, using governments to forcibly acquire hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland at a thousandth of the market price. These are the subsidies Wal-Mart is seeking through partnerships. And Walmart does not need a Gats service agreement to take over retail services in India: bilateral and unilateral policies are opening up India's markets for Wal-Mart.

So, the WTO may be on life support, but "free trade" is alive and kicking. Bilateral and unilateral initiatives are the new avatars of globalisation and free trade. And it is these avatars we must challenge if we are to stop corporate rule, while the WTO hovers between intensive care and the crematorium.


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