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China and the WTO: Boon or Threat?
Asia’s farmers worry about Chinese exports of GM foods

By Burmese writer

The planned entry of China to the World Trade Organization (WTO) has sent a wave of uncertainty through the 135 member countries at a key phase of negotiations to break down tariff barriers.
None of those participating in the WTO Millenium Round discussions can forecast the impact China’s entry will have on food and agriculture trade.

The WTO aims to cut and abolish food export and production subsidies and reduce and remove import tariffs among the member countries. It makes imported food cheaper. This is good news for consumers but bad news for farmers in protected countries who will receive less money, said David Brown, agriculture editor of the Daily Telegraph in London.
Some member countries worry about the potential influx from China of a huge amount of low-cost products onto the world food market. China is already growing genetically modified (GM) crops and many experts believe the move will accelerate the switch to GM food in other Asian countries as protectionism is gradually swept away and farmers are forced to become more competitive to survive.
GM crops are grown from seeds altered in the laboratory to make them more efficient. Some crops resist pests without pesticides and can be sprayed with weed killer without dying. The spray only kills the weeds.
Environmentalists are concerned about the impact of GM crops on the environment. The European Union wants more time to check whether GM crops are environment-friendly or not. The United States, meanwhile, wants free access to Europe and other countries for its GM food and claims there is no risk to human health and nature.
At stake is feeding the world’s growing population. Farmers will be pressured to produce more food on the same amount of land. According to UN Food and Agriculture Organisation publication, the world has to feed six billion people, and 800 million of them go to bed hungry, Of those, two out of three – 526 million – live in Asia and the Pacific.
FAO supports a cautious approach to GM crops, saying they should not go forward until there is more scientific evidence, according to a regional spokesman.
Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporting country, is seriously debating the pros and cons of introducing the new genetically modified seeds.
As China, like the U.S., is a firm supporter of GM technology, many countries believe this new production method is the price the world will pay for removing export subsidies and taxes.
Many other problems threaten to disrupt this year’s attempt to secure a fairer deal for all countries involved in the world food trade.
Europe wants strict animal welfare improvements included in the negotiations for the first time. The United States and the Cairns group of countries (which includes Pacific countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Thailand) object.
"In the past, the other European countries have been very reluctant to raise animal welfare standards to the British level because they have enjoyed a competitive advantage within the European Union against Britain," Brown said. "Now the EU is using animal welfare as a bargaining device to gain advantage in the WTO."
In addition, the EU and US still spend billions of dollars on export subsidies. " In Europe, America and Japan, subsidy have not come down. They just go up,"  said Vichai Sriprasert, a leading Thai rice dealer. " With the WTO, we have meetings, we have agreements that subsidies will have to be removed but in actuality they are not."
Member countries’ farmers are suspicious. All the countries try to protect their farmers in various ways, such as using export subsidies and import tariffs.
There are also difficulties with the so-called  "green box"  mechanism for governments to give subsidies to farmers for environmental and social purposes. The U.S. is particularly suspicious of the EU. This issue is being carefully watched by WTO.
Some experts accuse the WTO of not caring about environmental impact. Others criticise WTO for meeting behind closed doors, lacking democracy and transparency.
Some Mekong region countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia are considering pros and cons of entering WTO. Countries in this region are now examining the environmental impact of feeding the rising global population. They want to see more sustainable development for future generations.
"Subsidies, using chemicals and growing GM crops help boost high yields and produce more income."  Vichai said. " I would prefer to see crops produced organically, but in the foreseeable future commercial farmers have to use them to remain competitive in the markets."

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