GEORGE TOWN (Jan 21): The emergence of a “fast-track” bill in the United States to help knock down trade barriers abroad that hinder American exports, has sparked anxiety over possible implications to Malaysia.
Local consumer-rights and environmental groups have cautioned that Malaysian laws will have to be changed if the thrust of the bill is pursued by the US for inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), currently under negotiation.
In particular, they point to the possible elimination of labelling for genetically engineered (GE) foods, currently required under Malaysian law.
At the heart of the contention is the bill for the Bipartisan Congressional Trade Priorities Act of 2014, tabled in the US Congress on Jan 9.
Instituted on a fast-track basis, it lays out the principal trade negotiating objectives of the US.
According to the bill, among the practices targeted for elimination are “unjustified trade restrictions or commercial requirements, such as labelling, that affect new technologies, including biotechnology.”
This has caused a grouping of local non-governmental organisations (NGO) to sound the alarm. The concerned NGOs are the Consumers’ Association of Penang, EcoKnights, Sahabat Alam Malaysia, Third World Network and WWF-Malaysia.
Spokesperson SM Mohamed Idris noted the bill 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.
There are genuine concerns over the ramifications of the bill, especially in view of the TPPA which is being negotiated between the US, Malaysia and ten other countries.
The ten are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
The NGOs have warned that the bill sends “an ominous signal” that the US will insist in the TPPA that Malaysia forgoes labelling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.
“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,” Idris said in a statement yesterday.
Safety of GE foods in question
Idris emphasised that GE labelling is in the national and public interest and should be a “red line” for the Malaysian government.
There should not be any provisions in the TPPA that restrict Malaysia’s ability to regulate in favour of food safety, he added.
“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 living modified organisms (LMO) and products of such organisms, including GE food.”
There is still great scientific uncertainty as to whether GE foods are safe to consume. As such, labelling at least provides some choices to the consumers.
Malaysia’s Biosafety Act 2007 already requires the identification and labelling of LMOs, items containing LMOs and products of such organisms, Idris noted.
As for GE food, the matter is similarly covered 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,” he cautioned.
White House: “Knock down” trade barriers abroad
Idris also pointed out that the US is the world’s largest producer and exporter of GE crops. It does not have laws or regulations requiring mandatory labelling of GE food.
“The US specifically asked for the labelling provision in the then draft Biosafety Bill to be removed during the previous bilateral US-Malaysia free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations,” he said.
It underscores the fact that US legislators do not want to see GE labelling in trade-partner countries. This is to allow the unimpeded entry of US GE food exports in foreign markets.
“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,” he said.
Meanwhile, the office of the Press Secretary of the White House has welcomed the bill’s introduction.
It explained that although the US has “the most open markets in the world”, its products and services still face barriers abroad.
“That’s why we need to use every tool we have to knock down trade barriers that prevent American goods and services from being exported,” it said in a statement on Jan 9.
“If we don’t seize these opportunities, our competitors surely will.
“And if we don’t take the leadership to set high standards around the world, we will face a race to the bottom which is not in the interest of our workers and firms.”