Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says sanitary and phytosanitary issues should not be used as smokescreens to hinder the development and use of biotechnology and other technological advancements.

Speaking at a meeting of the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, the secretary said some countries have been employing the WTO Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measure to forestall competition with their agricultural sectors.

“As I have stated, it is crucial that policymakers avoid the misuse of the SPS agreement to protectionist ends,” she said. “One area where that is clearly happening is biotechnology, which is one potential tool to address issues of food safety and security around the world.

“The fact is that the opponents have been long on politics and short on science.”

Veneman told the agricultural ministers of the countries that comprise the Pan American Health Organization that their countries are moving closer to the fulfillment of a free-trade area spanning the entire hemisphere.

“The elimination of trade barriers under negotiation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas would create a formidable market with a population of 800 million people across 34 countries… an annual gross domestic product of $13 trillion,” she said.

“As we seek to expand and maintain markets and the confidence of consumers in our own countries and worldwide, our challenge will be to address legitimate concerns, in areas such as food safety… without erecting unnecessary barriers to trade.”

The secretary noted that the first modern, global efforts to address food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary measures came out of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations that began in Punta del Este in 1986. Those negotiations produced the SPS agreement.

“The SPS agreement was born out of the realization that as tariff and non-tariff trade barriers were reduced, sanitary and phytosanitary measures would gain importance in global trade and food and agricultural products,” she noted. “For better or worse, we were right.”

Since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round in 1996, countries have filed more than 20 WTO dispute settlement actions involving the SPS agreement and other issues have arisen that have not been taken to the WTO for various reasons.

“The critical importance of the SPS agreement is that it establishes clear rules that give governments ample flexibility to fulfill their central roles of protecting the health and safety of the public and agriculture industry, while preventing the abuse of SPS measures for protectionist ends,” Veneman said.

“Policymakers in all countries owe it to farmers, the food industry and consumers to insure that food safety is an issue where we find common ground rather than a battleground.”

She said that common ground must be rooted in sound science and not the shifting winds of geopolitics.

“Using standards and guidelines that are not based on scientific principles runs the risk of confusing consumers and eroding public confidence in the food safety systems,” she noted. “To prevent such abuses, it is vital that we work together to establish consensus and increase cooperation within the international bodies that can assist food safety and trade efforts.”

While the secretary did not name any countries, the Bush administration has been considering the filing of a WTO complaint against the European Union's ban on imports of genetically modified grain for sanitary and phytosanitary reasons.

Although Veneman and other USDA officials have confirmed that such a complaint is under discussion, they have declined to predict when and if such a complaint would be filed.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.