Geopolitics

GMO Arctic Apples, Only The TTIP Of The Iceberg

Health, science, business and consumer rights are driving major differences between the U.S. and the EU in the most far-reaching trade negotiations in history.

Europeans want to know what's in them.
Europeans want to know what's in them.
Alexander Hagelüken, Silvia Liebrich and Jan Willmroth,

MUNICH â€" Jack Bobo was on a mission when he entered the windowless meeting room in Washington. The message he delivered this spring was a simple one: Only genetic engineering can heal the rift between agriculture and the environment. But this could only happen if people first began to accept genetic engineering. "The apple," he declares, "is the product that may be able to sway consumers."

Bobo, however, is required to voice such opinions since he is a lobbyist for the U.S. genetic engineering company Intrexon, which dabbles in medical supplies as well as agricultural solutions. His eyes light up while describing so-called Arctic Apples, which are apples that do not oxidize when cut. They are also the first genetically modified apple of the Granny Smith variety nearly ready for release, and its flesh is as white as the eternal ice of the Arctic.

Is this a dream come true, or our worst nightmare? To consumers within the European Union, it is a horrifying thought, just as much as is the importing of meat from animals whose growth has been amplified through the use of hormones. Both of these types of products are widely prohibited within the EU. According to the responsible European authorities, it is unclear what could be the consequences to human health after consuming these products. Further reasons include the possibly detrimental consequences to the environment. But in the U.S. genetically modified food and hormone-treated meat are mass-produced products and American producers want to now sell these items in Europe, with the help of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed free trade agreement that could be the most far-reaching in history.

The confidential papers obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and the German radio and television stations WDR and NDR, which reveal details of the TTIP negotiations, demonstrate that risk evaluation is a central point of contention in these ongoing talks; two very different approaches to this topic being at the heart of the debate. In the U.S., the scientific principle reigns supreme, meaning that a product is considered safe until the opposite can be proven to be true. Europe on the other hand follows the prevention principle which can prompt bans to be passed even if only the slightest hint of possibly detrimental consequences exists.

The documents demonstrate, for the first time, how invested the U.S. is in annulling the prevention principle. The scientific principle is stressed in several places, such as where hygiene regulations are concerned. The U.S. demands that when "undertaking a risk assessment appropriate to the circumstances, each party shall ensure that it takes into account … the relevant available scientific evidence." The EU does not exactly reject this proposal but insists on "preserving each Party's right to protect human, animal or plant life and health in its territory and respecting each Party's regulatory systems, risk assessment, risk management and policy development processes."

But what exactly is the scientific principle? "It does, initially, sound very sensible but it hides a perfidious concept which is supposed to enable companies to halt any regulatory legislation processes," says Bärbel Höhn of the Green Party. The impending ban of a product could therefore be prevented, based on the fact that not enough scientific evidence that relates to its potential dangers has yet come to light. In fact, the U.S. feels that there is a need for both "parties … to strengthen their cooperation in the field of standards, technical regulations, and conformity assessment procedures to reduce and eliminate unnecessary technical barriers to trade." Translated into plain English this means that bans that are not based on the scientific principle are "unnecessary technical barriers to trade," and that these need to be reduced and eliminated.

Höhn fears that laws regarding health and safety protection at work, as well as consumer or environmental protection regulations, may be weakened or delayed indefinitely by applying this approach.

Christoph Then of "Testbiotech," which is critical of genetic engineering, adds that "most people imagine independent research upon hearing the term "scientific principle," but that is not the case. The documents that we evaluate for licensing of genetically modified plants lack independent verification." The most important goal seems to be to develop new technologies, he adds. But at the same time, the concept of protection is being neglected. This constitutes a problem in Then’s eyes, seeing as American producers will enter the market with a large number of new developments in plant and animal husbandry in the coming years. According to American wishes, the modalities for the licensing of "modern agricultural technologies" is to be anchored in the TTIP agreement. The U.S. further demands "to develop an approach or set of approaches to manage low-level presence in order to reduce unnecessary disruptions affecting trade," meaning that, if in doubt, potential risks should be evaluated quickly rather than thoroughly.

The EU Commission continues to deny that the prevention principle is in danger due to the pressure applied by the U.S., but perusal of the papers obtained highlights that the licensing of genetically modified food or hormone-treated meat has not been ruled out at any point. The U.S. Minister of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack, continuously stresses how little he thinks of the European stance, saying that "it will hinder trade, if food stuffs are not licensed based on scientific evidence but based on the demands placed upon it by politicians."

The constitutional judge Peter-Tobias Stoll, who is based in the central German city of Göttingen, is of the opinion that the topic of risk evaluation is a decisive one. He thinks the fear of weakened consumer protection voiced by so many who are opposed to the TTIP agreement is indeed justified. "It seems impossible to me that any standard will escape being lowered at some point in the future," says Stoll. "I am, frankly, quite surprised to see how adamant the U.S. is in anchoring American regulatory procedures in the TTIP agreement."

Critics also fear reductions in standards for food labelling. In the EU every ingredient that has been produced from genetically modified organisms has to be clearly labeled on the packaging. But the U.S. refuses to accept this practice as they consider it to be detrimental to trade, which will result in unnecessary costs and may be misconstrued as a warning label. American consumer protection organizations have been demanding explicit labeling of genetically modified foods in the United States for years and criticize this practice of non-declaration in the U.S. as non-existing transparency. They have, however, been unsuccessful in achieving this due to the fact that agricultural companies spend millions of dollars on campaigns to prevent such labeling.

"The experiences that our American colleagues have had show that consumer protection regulations are often trapped in limbo," affirms Klaus Müller, chairman of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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