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How the TPP Could Lead to More Global Trade of GMOs

File: Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media
More U.S.-grown genetically engineered corn could find its way across the Pacific Ocean if the TPP is approved by its member countries.

The massive Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, trade deal could require some countries to accept more genetically engineered crops.

The TPP is the largest free trade agreement in history, and while not yet approved by Congress, includes the U.S. and 11 other countries along the Pacific Ocean. 

Here’s how genetically engineered crops figure into the equation:

●        The agreement enhances standards for how countries can challenge imports

The sanitary and phytosanitary standards are basically safety measures a country puts in place to protect its environmental, animal and human health. Officials can stop a shipping container right there at the port if they suspect pests, bacteria or an unapproved product.

“The issue really becomes (a concern) when a country's measures step outside of science,” according to Floyd Gaibler, director of trade policy for the U.S. Grains Council. “That’s when we start having incidents that slow down for us the grain importing process and adds time and cost.”

Even though many countries have free trade agreements, regulators in the past have been accused of using so-called health concerns as trade barriers to protect domestic markets. That can grind international agreements to a halt and throw off markets.

The TPP creates a more expedited process to iron out those disputes. It builds upon standards already set by the World Trade Organization and grounds them in research the same way the U.S. does when pointing to the safety of genetically engineered crops.

●        That’s good news for U.S. farmers trying to push GMO crops

More than 90 percent of corn and soybeans grown here are genetically engineered to withstand herbicides or diseases. But some countries have blocked the importation of some of these crops, often called GMOs.

In fact in the TPP, we actually have language that addresses biotechnology for the first time,” Gaibler said. “It also includes some provisions to promote timely authorization of modern biotechnology.”

European guidelines essentially contend GMOs have to be proven safe before being accepted in trade. U.S. rules on the other hand tend to mark genetically modified products as safe until there is evidence they’re not. Countries that sign on to the TPP pledge to follow the U.S. standard.

Chip Bowling, president of the National Corn Growers Association, said in a 2015 press conference that after years of GMO trade setbacks, it’s time other countries fall in line with the U.S. approach.

“We know that our product is safe,” he said. “We need other countries to understand that’s the same thing. The product is safe and we need to feed a growing world with the billions of people coming on board.”

Farmers are particularly excited about getting their crops to countries with growing middle class income, such as Vietnam and Malaysia.

●        It could push countries to accept genetically engineered crops that haven’t been approved by domestic regulators

Clearly not everyone in the TPP countries is on board with opening the trade gates to GMOs. Last year, demonstrators in countries across the world, including TPP member Japan, protested the approval of genetically modified food.

“That's really what the tension is,” said Patrick Woodall, research director for the group Food and Water Watch. “The TPP is a weapon that enables U.S. agribusinesses to impose its will on other countries.”

Under the TPP, Woodall says it would be harder for countries to prevent GMOs from entering their markets if they’re already approved in the U.S.

“It would press countries to approve GMO crops (and) to move toward GMO cultivation, even when their domestic people did not want to do that,” he said.

●        The agreement could set precedent for global trade

The nations signed on to the TPP hold 40 percent of the global economy.

Phil Levy, with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said it’s likely more countries will want to sign on after it’s approved. He says they may see these new measures as the new global standard and, in turn, realize life might be easiest for them commercially if they adapt to the uniform policy.

“That’s part of the hope,” he said. “The U.S. has wanted to craft standards that work in its interests.”

Congress has yet to approve the TPP, but it’s slated to look at the trade deal in the coming months.

Kristofor Husted is a senior reporter at KBIA in Columbia, Mo. Previously Husted reported for NPR’s Science Desk in Washington and Harvest Public Media. Husted was a 2013 fellow with the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and a 2015 fellow for the Institute for Journalism and Justice. He’s won regional and national Edward R. Murrow, PRNDI and Sigma Delta Chi awards. Husted also is an instructor at the Missouri School of Journalism. He received a B.S. in cell biology from UC Davis and an M.S. in journalism from Northwestern University.