This statement has been endorsed by 4 other NGOs in Malaysia.
The tabling of the “Fast Track Bill” in the United States sends an ominous signal that the United Stateswill insist in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) that Malaysia forgoes labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods. Malaysia is currently negotiating the TPPA with 11 other countries – Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, US and Vietnam – and negotiations have been intensifying.
The Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, as it is formally known, was tabled on 9 January 2014. Fast Track authority would mean that the US Congress can only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the TPPA.
The Bill lays out the principal trade negotiating objectivesof the US. With respect to agriculture, the objective is to obtain opportunities for US exports of agricultural commodities in foreign markets. It specifically points to the need to develop, strengthen, and clarify rules to eliminate practices the US deems to be unfair, and to ensure that such rules are subject to dispute settlement.
Among the practices targeted for elimination are “unjustified trade restrictions orcommercial requirements, such as labeling, that affect new technologies, including biotechnology” (p. 9).
If proposed in the TPPA and agreed to by Malaysia, this would mean that Malaysians’ right to know whether our food is genetically engineered is under threat. There is still great scientific uncertainty as to whether GE foods are safe to consume, and at the least labeling provides choice to the consumers.
Malaysia’s Biosafety Act 2007 already requires the identification and labelling of living modified organisms (LMOs), items containing LMOs and products of such organisms. For GE food, this is put into operation by the Food (Amendment) Regulations 2010. These laws will have to be changed if the move to eliminate GE food labelling succeeds in the TPPA negotiations.
In addition, the National Fatwa Council for Islamic Affairs Malaysia, in 2011, issued a fatwa stating that in the production of GE food, the use of ingredients that are prohibited (haram) and that harm human beings and the environment, are not allowed. For Muslim consumers therefore, the labeling of GE food would be important in providing certainty.
The US is the world’s largest producer and exporter of GE crops. It does not have laws or regulations requiring mandatory labeling of GE food. The US specifically asked for the labeling provision in the then draft Biosafety Bill to be removed during the previous bilateral US-Malaysia free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations.
While the Fast Track Bill is unlikely to be approved, given that a large bloc of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representativesare opposed to it, the fact remains that US legislators do not want to see GE labeling in trade partner countries. If President Obama is not granted Fast Track authority, then Congress can demand further changes to the TPPA. Therefore, with or without Fast Track authority, the intention of the US is clear: eliminate GE labeling to allow the unimpeded entry of US GE food exports in foreign markets.
GE labelling is in the national and public interest and should be a red line for the government. There should not be any provisions in the TPPA that restrict the ability of Malaysia to regulate in favour of food safety. In particular the TPPA should not require changes to our existing and future laws that Malaysia deems appropriate in this area, which require the identification and labelling of LMOs and products of such organisms, including GE food.
Given that the US is very unlikely to compromise on this issue, and that this is only one of the many serious concerns with the TPPA, many civil society groups do not see the benefit of remaining in the negotiations and are calling on the government to withdraw from the TPPA.
S. M. Mohamed Idris
On behalf of:
1. Consumers’ Association of Penang
3. Sahabat Alam Malaysia
4. Third World Network