Bad science, health risks, and the EU/US trade treaty

Whether on GM foods, pesticides, or pharmaceuticals, the EU/US trade treaty aims to strip away higher European regulations that protect public health but hinder corporate profits.

Molly Scott Cato
12 March 2014
pesticide risk.jpg

Image: Flickr/Jetsandzeppelins

A new corporate treaty is lumbering through the corridors of power, threatening to undermine our democratic rights and consumer protection. The negotiations are being conducted in secret so we cannot speak with certainty about what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) contains. We must garner clues from the public utterances of its supporters.

I read with interest a recent article in the Wall Street Journal by my Conservative opponent in the South-West European Elections, Julie Girling. More interesting than why she chose to write the article, or why to publish it in the US corporate capital, is the question of why she targets her argument on EU legislation to protect us from harmful chemicals.

Girling at least engages with the issue of the risk and harm that lies at the heart of the polarised debate about the benefits or otherwise of the TTIP. This is more grown-up than the bandying around of bogus figures of potential job losses or financial gain that characterises the Liberal Democrats’ justification for their economic policies, with its rather imprecise claim of a ‘four to ten billion pound’ boost for the UK economy.

In connection with the TTIP, the South-West's Liberal democrat MEP Graham Watson claimed in his November newsletter that 'I tend to the view that trade is a good thing, creating prosperity, securing jobs, and promoting peace'.

I tend to the view that a trade treaty that has to be negotiated in secret is unlikely to be of benefit to the citizens of either the US or the EU. Most of what we know about it so far has come into the public domain through leaks. One cannot help wonder whether these leaks have emerged from US spying activities, as highlighted in a resolution put down by Green MEPs and passed by the EU's Civil Liberties Committee Committee.

What can we learn about the true aims of the treaty from Girling’s article? She focuses her fire on the precautionary principle - the principle that constrains the worst excesses of corporate damage in the EU context. She claims that existing restraints are the result of scare-mongering and makes a plea to the importance of 'established norms of science and risk management' as though the suited profiteers had monopoly rights on the understanding of risk.

Recent critical academic research would argue that risk paradigms are precisely invented to entrench certain powerful positions and to give them a seemingly objective validity above rival views.

We should also tackle the claim that ‘the body's endocrine system is designed to interact with the environment’, so artificial chemicals pose no threat to our health. The bizarre comparison between an adrenalin response to a barking dog and a hormone response to bisphenol A (one of the chemicals that interferes with our hormones) seems far-fetched in the extreme. We are physiologically and emotionally evolved to deal with potentially dangerous animals, but even the most enthusiastic Darwinist would not credit our evolutionary capacity with the responsiveness to deal with chemicals that came into widespread use only since the 1960s.

Since the Wall Street Journal article is devoid of references it is impossible to check out the claim that 'Europe's mainstream scientific community' objects to use of the precautionary principle; we also unable to check out the views of the 67 cited 'influential scientists' and their sources of funding. However the endocrine-disrupting chemicals are of enough significance to have caused the World Health Organisation to publish technical briefings for governments and to warn of possible contamination routes and potential harms ranging from breast cancer to neurodevelopmental delays.

What the article helpfully does from the perspective of those of us who are suspicious of the intentions of TTIP is to make clear that the focus is on non-tariff barriers. This means regulations on food, drugs and chemicals that are higher in the EU than in the US and therefore constrain the corporate profits that flow from free movement of goods.

Rather than pretend it is we as citizens who will benefit economically, Girling makes clear that it is the corporates who feel themselves hampered by such non-tariff barriers who will benefit.

TTIP is not about trade, as its name falsely implies, but about corporate power. If it is allowed to succeed then the European Union's very sensible precautionary principle will be only one of the casualties. We are being prepared for a renewed onslaught from the pedlars of genetically modified foods, pharmaceuticals and further onslaughts against social protections will follow as the corporations engage in a race to the bottom of social and consumer standards. And the ‘investor-state dispute mechanism’ part of TTIP will mean that governments merely seeking to protect their citizens will be forced to pay millions in compensation.

Julie Girling’s article highlights how the debate over TTIP will be fought. Those who are supporting the expansion of corporate power will attack the standards that generations of European citizens have fought to introduce in areas like harmful chemicals, pharmaceuticals and GM food. We have already seen a relaunch of the propaganda war on GM in the last few months.

We should recognise this pattern and set the alarm bells ringing in every media outlet we have access to. And most importantly we should do everything we can to make the secret negotiations public and to spread the word about the attack on democracy, economic resilience, and public health that this secret, corporate treaty is really about.

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