There is an ever-widening gap between the position of developed and developing nations on environmental and animal-rights concerns related to the food industry. In part the gap is ideological, although the fundamental concern is an economic one, which begs the question: Should environmental and animal safety concerns be enforced as conditions of international food trade? Steve Lewis comments.

Environmental groups in developed nations have become increasingly adept at enforcing their agendas via trade policy and court decisions. A case in point is the suit brought against the Mexican tuna industry by the US-based environmental group Earth Island. In spite of the fact that the US government officially lifted its ban on Mexican tuna in 1999, Earth Island’s legal actions in the federal courts of California continue to block tuna imports to the United States on the grounds that Mexican tuna fishermen unnecessarily sacrifice dolphins.

Ironically, a report recently issued by fishing authorities reveals that Mexico’s tuna fleet has the lowest incidence of dolphin deaths in the world. Credibility of the report is enhanced by the fact that international monitors have a presence on 100% of Mexico’s tuna fleet, where they accumulate detailed information on dolphin safety.

With dolphin deaths caused by the Mexican fleet nearing zero, it is apparent that the ban harms the Mexican food industry much more than it benefits dolphins. During the first five years of the ban an estimated 30,000 Mexican families lost a permanent source of income and the industry lost US$120m in export earnings.

During the third week of August, Carlos Hussong, head of the National Fishing Industry Chamber, announced that, if the US ban is not promptly dropped, the Mexican fishing industry will abandon the International Program for the Preservation of Dolphins and will prohibit international observers from boarding Mexico’s 65 tuna boats. In addition, the industry leader called for a Mexican ban on all tuna products coming from the United States.

The broadening scope of conflict

Not only is the tuna controversy between the United States and Mexico escalating; it is increasingly linked to other environmental concerns. Mexico and other Latin American nations have come to view environmental issues as tools used by developed nations to systematically block their products from penetrating the prime consumer markets of the world.

Mexico’s assistant secretary of agriculture Victor Villalobos went on to underscore linkage of environmental causes and trade agendas by saying: “If those that claim to be environmentalists were truly environmentalists, they would almost have to be in favour of GMOs, but their opposition is not motivated by environmental concerns, but by economic ones.”

Attacks on food industry sectors like Mexican tuna are undermining the shallow but vocal support for the anti-GM movement in Latin America. Villalobos linked the issues by saying: ”

“Those protesting organisations live off of ecological terrorism, so if they are not focusing on the tuna and dolphin issue, they are lashing out against GMOs”

– Victor Villalobos, Mexico’s assistant secretary of agriculture

Those protesting organisations live off of ecological terrorism, so if they are not focusing on the tuna and dolphin issue, they are lashing out against GMOs.”

Latinos increasingly view the GMO issue as one driven by outside extremist groups. That image was forged a couple of years back when a group led by a French environmental activist caused millions of dollars worth of damage at a Monsanto plant in Brazil, summarising their cause with the words “seeds or death” scrawled on the walls of the facility.

Increasing friction with the EU

Agricultural authorities in Latin America feel that environmental issues are turning the trade agenda of the European Union against them. Argentine and Uruguayan authorities have expressed concern that the cumbersome and expensive traceability programs in the EU are viable in an atmosphere of heavy agricultural subsidies, but not in South America, where producers bear a disproportionate share of the cost. In spite of the fact that South American livestock producers are in a state of economic crisis, the EU is expected to make traceability a condition for importing South American animal products as of January 2003.

The EU’s pending traceability and labelling requirements could soon place a substantial cost burden on Latin food producers, essentially locking poor nations out of the European market. The government of Argentina recently announced that it would join forces with the USA in combating a pending motion in the European Parliament that would require labelling of GMO food products.

In a report published in, agriculture minister Marcelo Regunaga was quoted as saying: “Both Argentina and the United States are of the opinion that the Europeans hope to block trade with issues that are not trade related… issues that are not even scientifically based.”

Regunaga raised the possibility that other MERCOSUR nations will join Argentina and the US in their effort to prevent passage of the labelling requirement, which already has European Commission approval. According to Regunaga: “By means of a coordinated ambassadorial lobbying effort in Brussels we hope to stop this proposal.”

The disparate stances taken by developed and developing nations on environment and trade highlight the fact that affluence shapes food industry priorities. Affluent societies are increasingly inclined to demand environmental and animal-friendly products because farm subsidies in their home nations absorb some of the cost and consumers can absorb the rest through higher prices. However, by enforcing these demands on impoverished nations, they are widening the gap between the “have” and “have nots” of the global food chain. They are creating an impossible situation for impoverished farmers who have no access to subsidies and who, even if they could find the funding to produce “friendly” products, could not recover the investment in their home markets.

By Steven Lewis, correspondent

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