Issue 180

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The Ram's Horn #180, May 2000

Codex: Adapting to Survive
by Brewster Kneen

No organism exists without a context, and Codex Alimentarius is no exception.

Established by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in 1962 "to guide and promote the elaboration and establishment of definitions and requirements for foods, to assist in their harmonization and, in doing so, to facilitate international trade," the Codex Alimentarius Commission certainly bears more resemblance today to an organism than to a compendium of "science-based" food definitions and standards.

The processes of a Codex meeting, such as the annual meeting of the Codex Committee on Food labelling (CCFL) held in Ottawa May 9-12, are really only comprehensible if one thinks of an organism that must maintain its own integrity in order to survive, while at the same time mutating and adapting to threats and pressures from alien and sometimes hostile forces, whether biological, political or ethical.
Codex, at least as expressed in the CCFL, of which Canada is both host country and chair, has remained largely faithful to the its original mandate. It operates by consensus according to rules that remain surprisingly undefined and hence resistant to the efforts of the United States to turn it into a lackey (Codex, that is, not Canada) by forcing majority rule, as in the World Bank or IMF and the standards remain voluntary. How long this will be the case remains to be seen as transnational corporations and the US Government, with Canada's disgraceful support, seek to make Codex the rule making body for foods under the WTO. There are no enforcement mechanisms for Codex standards otherwise since Codex was merely to supply the definitions and standards that countries and companies could use to facilitate their international trade when appropriate. It is curious how the ideologues of free trade and less government interference want stringent enforceable rules their rules when it suits their purposes!

William Cronon, in his brilliant and fascinating book Nature's Metropolis (Norton, 1991) describes the development of food standards in the context of the rise and rule of the Chicago Board of Trade, which was founded in 1848:

As the scale of Chicago's grain trade grew, elevator operators began objecting to keeping small quantities of different owners' grain in separate bins that were only partially filled for an unfilled bin represented underutilized capital. To avoid that disagreeable condition, they sought to mix grain in common bins. Crops from dozens of different farms could then mingle, and the reduced cost of handling would earn the elevator operator higher profits. The only obstacle to achieving this greater efficiency was the small matter of a shipper's traditional legal ownership of physical grain.

The organization that eventually solved this problem . . . was this Chicago Board of Trade... [In 1856] the Board made the momentous decision to designate three categories of wheat in the city . . . and to set standards for each. . .

Farmers and shippers delivered grain to a warehouse and in return got a receipt that they or anyone else could redeem at will. Anyone who gave the receipt back to the elevator got in return not the original lot of grain but an equal quantity of equally graded grain. . . The grading system allowed elevators to sever the link between ownership rights and physical grain, with a host of unanticipated consequences. (pp.114-116)

One of these unanticipated changes, which we might compare to the "unintended consequences" of genetic engineering, was the creation of a 'futures' market a market in which it was not the actual commodity that was traded, but a claim on the actual commodity. Traders could gamble on the movement of prices over time, hence the name 'futures market', which was "a market not in grain but in the price of grain," as Cronon describes it.

"Grain elevators and grading systems had helped transmute wheat and corn into monetary abstractions, but the futures contract extended the abstraction by liberating the grain trade itself from the very processes which had once defined it: the exchange of physical grain." (p.126) With the physical link between the real commodity or food and the market severed, the need for agreed upon standards becomes obvious. Enter Codex Alimentarius.

Before turning to the meeting of the CCFL itself, however, another aspect of its context needs to be dealt with. Otherwise it is really not possible to fully understand the organism's actions and reactions.

In the past couple of years we have been witnesses to a well-orchestrated attack on multinational institutions by transnational powers, beginning with the refusal of the United States to pay its full dues to the United Nations and those constituent bodies that show reluctance to execute the will of the US. Last year we saw the marginalization of the UN as NATO was called upon to attack Kosovo. We see the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) referenced as an authority to legitimize the pseudo-science of purported regulatory agencies such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, when in fact the OECD is a political body with the mandate of fostering international trade on behalf of its members, the highly industrialized states of Europe and North America. Now we are seeing systematic efforts to privatize standard setting through the International Standards Organization (ISO) and its appendages such as the Canadian General Standards Board and the Standards Council of Canada. Both are part of "Canada's National Standards System [which] is expected to support Canada's commitment to the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement." (personal letter from CGSB 13/12/99) In other words, what we can observe in the sideshow of the CCFL meeting is the attempt of the US, aided by Canada, to impose its will on Codex and barring success in that, to marginalize Codex and replace it with the ISO regime which is controlled by big business.

It seems . . . that the ISO is actually perceived by the World Business Council on sustainable Development (WBCSD) as being even more important that the WTO. Indeed, the most effective means to ensure that TNCs will create their global 'level playing field' is to ensure that ISO sets those product, and even more so, those production process standards, that must favour WBCSD interests. Finger & Kilcoyne, The Ecologist, 7/97

The drama, then, in the May 2000 meeting of the CCFL lay in the manoeuvres by the US and Canada to pursue a two track strategy: first, trying to gain support for a meaningless decision for the mandatory labelling of food products containing engineered DNA or protein known to be harmful, i.e., which would not be on the market anyway; or, failing that, to pursue a deliberately obstructionist strategy that would make any decision impossible, thus enabling the US and Canada to claim that Codex is dysfunctional, which would, in turn, open the door to the ISO regime. In other words, as with sanctions against Cuba and the continued bombing and sanctions against Iraq, the policy very much appears to be: If you cannot control, then destroy.

The surprise of the meeting was the very strong leadership taken by India and Norway, together with Consumers International, in their call for mandatory labelling of all foods derived from biotechnology, without qualification. They called for the labelling of process and product, and of product whether or not it contained altered DNA or protein. It is worth noting that Norway is not a member of the EU, and is thus free to express its own views. Norway was, by the end of the meeting, supported by Denmark, Germany and Italy, to the best of my knowledge (one can only be sure when the final report is released). Norway's pre-conference comments stated:

We are of the opinion that all foods genetically modified or genetically engineered, for whatever purpose, should be labelled as such, regardless of having been changed or not.

The main issue for the consumer is not whether a product can have an effect on human health under different circumstances or is different from a "conventional" product, but rather the consumers' right to being properly informed. Thus, in a field where concerns exist based, i.e. on ethical and environmental values, they would be able to make their own choice. . . Consumers have a right to have their views in this regard acknowledged by the authorities.

Consumers International added to the Norwegian position that it believed that "comprehensive labelling is the most scientifically sound approach, whereas exclusion of products which contain no [altered] protein or DNA is not based on sound science." CI added that full labelling would facilitate traceability, an issue which had not surfaced in previous CCFL discussions. Denmark also stressed the issue of traceability in its initial comments.

Canada, on the other hand, repeated one of its brief repertoire of gobbledygook lines: "voluntary labelling of foods derived, or not, through gene technology can provide a useful means for manufacturers to identify these foods and inform consumers when the labelling is truthful, not misleading and based on appropriate standards." With great dishonesty, the Canadian statement added that "modern crop production methods and the necessity for multilevel handling, distribution and food processing practices present a significant potential for some product mixing to occur. . . Failure to recognize this market reality could result in misleading and/or erroneous product information being presented to consumers." In other words, having polluted the system as best we can as fast as we could, we will now argue that nothing upstream can change and we will have to accept the fait accompli. The fact that the same companies pushing biotech foods have also developed and are trading in Identity Preserved crops is apparently irrelevant.

The United States revealed the key element of its current strategy in the following words: "Providing information regarding the method of production on the food label would be highly impractical and inequitable. Difficulties and costs in applying such labelling to commingled commodity products used in prepackaged foods containing ingredients from many different sources would be substantial and would be borne by all consumers." The US does not say why the (unsubstantiated) costs would be borne by all consumers, rather than by the biotech industry which is causing the problem in the first place.

The biotech discussion took most of Tuesday, May 9th, with 282 delegates and observers present, representing 44 member countries and 30 international organizations, most of the latter being industry lobby organizations. Discussion of wording and definitions (referred to as Section 2) took up about half of the time, but did produce some interesting results, most noticeably replacement of the deliberately misleading term "modern biotechnology" by "certain techniques of genetic modification/genetic engineering."

The rest of the day, and the first part of Wednesday morning, was taken up with Section 5, which consisted of two alternative options proposed by a working group chaired by Canada. (Canada is in the difficult position of providing the neutral Chair of the CCFL and the meeting, in the person of Anne MacKenzie, while the head of the Canadian delegation, Gerry Reasbeck, articulates the increasingly unpopular position of the Canadian Government and the CFIA. Both MacKenzie and Reasbeck are senior bureaucrats in the CFIA.)

The first option was the US/Canada position for voluntary (i.e. no) labelling, while the second option was for limited mandatory labelling. Neither included identification of the process by which the foods were derived.

At this point Norway and India, supported by others, called for a third option of mandatory labelling of allfoods derived from biotechnology without qualification, as previously mentioned.

By then it was clear that a growing number of delegations were becoming very annoyed by the obstructionist positions being taken by Canada and the US, with token support from Thailand, Australia and a few other countries. As a way of overcoming the impasse, Japan suggested that the labelling of GE foods be treated as a guideline rather than a standard. This is an important distinction. As a standard, the non-labelling of GE food, as demanded by the US, could be enforced by the WTO, which would amount to a ban on the meaningful labelling of GE food. If any consensus regarding the labelling of GE foods were reached and the result designated as a guideline, however, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the WTO to act as enforcer, and the character of Codex would remain true to its tradition. Neither Option 3 nor the Japanese suggestion of making the issue a guideline pleased the US and Canada, though as the discussion proceeded, more and more countries suggested that these options needed to be taken very seriously.

It is my interpretation that as the US became increasingly obstructionist, and Canada tried to front for it, countries that had been wavering were moved to distance themselves from the US/Canada position/strategy. When the draft report was presented Friday morning, there was a notable increase in the level of anger at the tactics being used to downplay the mandatory labelling and guideline proposals in favour of forcing a choice between the obviously unacceptable options 1 and 2. The chair had to do some fancy (and admirable, I must admit) footwork to recover her 'neutral' stance and allow a substantial rewording of the text to actually reflect the will of the delegates.

The outcome: some wording and definitions have been improved and clarified, but the labelling of GE foods remains stuck where it has been for three years, at step three (out of 8) in the Codex process. The working group, which now includes India, is to reconvene with Canada as chair to come up with a proposal for consideration a year from now. Because the contentious Section Five was left undecided, so was the question of whether "differs significantly" or "no longer equivalent" should be used to designate which foods would require labelling under Option one. During the discussion, however, it was very clear that a majority of the delegates felt that "significantly", like "substantially," was just not acceptable as a scientific term.

What we can expect to see now is the US pursuit of a two-track policy: support for what amounts to a no-label position in Codex, and the development of mandatory (under the WTO) standards for the labelling of non-GE foods in the ISO context. The model for this second course of action is, of course, being developed in Canada, as described in The Ram's Horn #179.

We have, however, been given a year in which to organize, and to strengthen and expand the global alliance that became visible and effective in this year's meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Labelling. While it may seem pointless to write to the Ministers of Health and Agriculture, given their demonstrated lack of interest in the views of the Canadian public, it probably does not hurt to keep reminding them of the majority view of Canadians regarding the labelling of GE food. It would also be good to express our views, in the strongest possible terms, to the Standing Committee on Agriculture of the House of Commons.

John Harvard is Chair of the committee (, fax 613-992-3199) and Clerk of the committee, Georges Eroka, can be reached at

If you wish to be kept informed of future information and action on this issue, please let us know. We need to develop a strong citizens' voice on Codex issues. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but it can be interesting.

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