Pesticide harmony -- a sick free trade tune

Canada plans to reduce pesticide safety standards to match the U.S. Meanwhile, Europe looks on in disgust.

Published May 9, 2007 6:55PM (EDT)

Canada is set to raise the amount of maximum pesticide residues allowable on hundreds of fruits and vegetables, reports the Ottawa Citizen, as part of "an effort to harmonize Canadian pesticide rules with those of the United States."

The differing standards are a "trade irritant," we are told.

You couldn't ask for a more visceral demonstration of why "free trade" as it is currently practiced raises so many hackles. From a health perspective, the goal of maximizing trade should never require that a country weaken its standards on the amount of potentially toxic chemicals permitted to cling to an apple or grapefruit. Regular readers of How the World Works know that this space is fundamentally pro-trade, but I find it hard to disagree with this definition of "harmonization" found in the Global Pesticide Campaigner, a publication of the Pesticide Action Network, North America.

Harmonization is the name used by corporations and trade agreements for the process of replacing democratically adopted national-level health, environmental or food safety standards with uniform international standards generated in international forums with strong industry representation. These standards then become the only trade-legal standard, or the only standard a country can enforce without risking trade sanctions for "technical barriers to trade." Since trade agreements carry strong enforcement mechanisms, they have a dramatic and chilling effect on national regulation. For example, Japan lowered 1,500 pesticide residue standards in the late 1990s because Japanese standards were stronger than the trade-legal Codex, the international food standards of the WTO."

But it doesn't have to be that way, and before we get too caught up in the narrative of squeaky-clean Canada being forced to lower itself to the level of its pesticide-crazed neighbor to the south, it's worth getting some perspective. Compared to Europe (and Australia), both the U.S. and Canada have inadequate standards on maximum residue levels (MRLs). And Canada's track record in the past has been spotty at best, according to an exhaustive look at international pesticide regulations compiled for the David Suzuki Foundation in October 2006.

One of the driving forces behind recent changes to Canadian pesticide laws, regulations, and policies has been the objective of harmonizing the Canadian and American systems and standards to fulfill trade objectives. The U.S. is the major market for Canadian food exports. Canada lagged behind the U.S. in regulating pesticides for many years and the gap grew unacceptably wider with the American enactment of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, a law that mandated increased protection for children and other populations vulnerable to harm from pesticides. There are ongoing efforts pursuant to the North American Free Trade Agreement to standardize pesticide regulation in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

One of the main problems with North American harmonization, demonstrated by this report, is that both Canada and the U.S. fare poorly in protecting public health from pesticide risks in comparison to the European Union and Australia. The European Union approach has been to raise disparate nations up to the highest environmental standards."

The EU's strategy is harmonization of a different tune, and that's the kind of globalization How the World Works supports: setting high standards, and then encouraging the rest of the world to meet them. It gets a bit dicey if such standards are manipulated on purpose to create protectionist barriers to trade, but determining whether such manipulation is occurring is precisely the kind of thing that a fully transparent World Trade Organization should be preoccupied with. In the meantime, when poison is on the table -- the obvious default should be to harmonize up, not down.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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