The burden of free trade

It is insane to repress information about products in the name of free trade

WHAT ARE they putting in our food these days? And how can we avoid it? Whether it's antibiotics in the chickens and pigs we buy from Europe, or growth hormones fed to the cows whose beef we buy from America, the new era of globalised free trade is taking down the barriers to importing these dubious additives.

While we may be able to remove the antibiotics from European imports, if we can convince Brussels to act, it is more difficult with the United States of America. Twice this year Europe has been at odds with the US, with the world's only remaining superpower imposing swingeing sanctions to get its way, backed by the World Trade Organisation. And in both cases the reasons for trade sanctions against America have been ethical.

In the Banana War, the right of Britain to protect the livelihoods of its former colonies by preferentially purchasing Caribbean bananas grown on small, environmentally friendly farms rather than South American bananas grown on the huge estates of the American-owned multi-nationals, was denied. In the Beef War, Britain supports the US in its demand that the EU should open its markets to hormone-treated beef, which has been banned in the EU for 11 years because of worries over health risks, particularly with respect to laboratory tests which suggest that hormone-treated meat may be carcinogenic.

Because Britain is an ally of the US in this particular free trade skirmish, goods from this country have not been included in the list of European products which have been subjected to retaliatory 100 per cent tariffs since 29 July. Instead luxury food products from France, Germany, Denmark and Italy are under attack, the livelihoods of people with nothing to do with beef production threatened in order that the US can continue to pursue its ideological commitment to unfettered free trade alongside its rather less ideological commitment to the further concentration of global wealth within its shores.

This concentration is already such that the three richest people in the world, all Americans, have assets greater than the combined GNP of the world's 43 least developed countries and their 600 million people. Even though the US can boast 208 of the world's dollar billionaires (second is Germany with just 48), the country still manages to come only third in the UN's most recent standards of living table. This, of course, is because of the scale of deprivation in the nation's underclass, which despite all of the promises of "trickledown", remains resolutely grotesque.

While it has long been considered hopelessly naive to consider economic equality as either desirable or helpful, even capitalist moguls such as Ted Turner, of the Time Warner group are expressing concern about the economic inequality that has been fostered by globalisation. Turner, in a special contribution to a recent report from the United Nations Development Programme, pointed out that: "Headway on poverty is not keeping pace. It is as if globalisation is in fast- forward, and the world's ability to react to it is in slow motion."

His observation is simple, but the truth is more simple than that. While globalisation has been proven to be an effective generator of wealth, its prophets are less inclined to point out how it is almost by definition an effective generator of poverty as well.

Within the domestic economy, the generation of wealth also generates a need for wealth supporters. These are the burgeoning ranks of cleaners, nannies, cooks, waiters, shop assistants and other service providers which have sprouted up since the Eighties when Britain's part in the advancement of globalisation really got going.

In order for this service-providing tier of the population to survive on their wages - which of course are much lower than those of their direct or indirect employers - they need even cheaper goods and services than they themselves provide, from people who earn less than they do. This is where not only poorly paid service jobs in this country come in, but also reasonably high quality goods from abroad, which have often been made under sweatshop conditions.

It was with the hope of alleviating the exploitation of those at the bottom of the global capitalism heap that Christian Aid launched the Ethical Trading Initiative three years ago. The scheme encourages companies to take more responsibility for the working conditions of overseas contractors, and while it is nominally supported by the Government, through Clare Short at overseas development, campaigning has been something of an uphill struggle.

This is not surprising, for in another part of the forest, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, is keen to take a tougher line on all kinds of protectionism and discrimination, for these, he says, "are the real threat to global prosperity". The mechanism by which he wishes for this to be achieved is through the workings of the World Trade Organisation, which, he said in a speech in June, needs shaking up. "The WTO must lie at the heart of the global trading environment, based on clear and firm rules designed to protect weaker economies from exploitation and to deter stronger economies from confrontation."

The WTO is certainly keen to extend its power, and is backed by many of the richest nations in its desire to do so. Focusing on the trade summit scheduled for Seattle on 29 November, the WTO is already campaigning for a new round of negotiations to give it ultimate power over even more areas of world trade than it already has.

But all the indications are that the organisation does not want to win the right to oversee the kind of ethical trade that Byers hints ever so gently at, but instead simply to pursue even further the ideology of unfettered trade - trade which, so long as it is "free", does not take into account any environmental, public health, humanitarian or ethical issues at all.

All that matters is the bottom line, the creation of private wealth, even though Ted Turner is not the only benign critic to have expressed worry about the world's ability to cope with the snowballing power of the globalisation project.

Already, in a very real sense, the WTO rules the world. It has the power to overturn decisions made within powerful democracies. In the case of genetically modified food, for example, consumer power rather than the rulings of government has resulted in increasing measures to label genetically modified food in Britain and in other European countries.

But Canada and the US have already complained to the WTO about what both countries see as an impediment to free trade, and there are real fears among environmentalists that the WTO may outlaw such labelling.

In the present climate it is insane to repress information about products in the name of free trade, or indeed in the name of anything.

Instead, what we should be moving towards is a compromise situation in which trade remains free but becomes increasingly informed. For while it may be right to argue that protectionism does not work, people must retain the right to protect themselves, whether it is from eating food which is pumped full of hormones they don't want, buying timber that has been cut from unsustainable rainforests, or wearing clothes that have been made by people earning as little as 26 pence an hour.

Only in this way can globalisation really become the force for fairness and equality that it is made out to be. The more that wealthy nations tread on the needs of poorer nations, and also on the needs of their own poorer citizens in the name of free trade, the more nations, and people, will opt out of the entire system. It is a truism that in knowledge lies power. And that is why the WTO remains opposed to the idea of informing the world's consumers about the real cost of free trade.

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