By Rajiv Shah
Did the Government of India come up with the three farm laws, first rushed by promulgating ordinances in June 2020, to not just open the country’s agricultural sector to the corporate sector but also as a precursor to comply with the requirements of the United States for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), as envisaged by the outgoing US president Donald Trump?
A Barcelona (Spain)-based international non-profit organization, claiming to work to support small farmers and biodiversity-based food systems suggested in a comprehensive paper published on May 26, 2020, suggests that this is what may have happened. Analysts, quoting US officials, say, a change in the US administration may, at best, may delay the FTA process, not abandon it.
According to the non-profit, GRAIN, an Indo-US trade agreement would be on lines of US deals over the last three years with South Korea, China, Canada, and Mexico. Insisting that the whole idea of FTA is to access Indian markets in every possible way, GRAIN thinks, it would also mean the reversal of India’s current policy of protecting farmers. It says, “Agriculture in the US, which is heavily controlled by large agribusiness corporations, is highly dependent on exports. However, despite numerous attempts, the US has never managed to get India to open its markets to US farm goods.”
Suggesting that things began in September 2019 when Modi went to the US, with President Donald Trump announcing that he was working to expand US exports to India, GRAIN says, “Immediately after, India withdrew from the Asia-Pacific wide trade negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Commerce Minister announced that India had begun exploring trade agreements with the US and the European Union (EU).”
Insists GRAIN, “A US-India FTA could be worse than RCEP. India’s farmers, having an average landholding of one hectare, will be forced to compete with US farmers whose average landholding is 176 hectares. There are 2.1 million farms across the US employing less than 2% of the population, with an average annual on-farm income per farm household of $18,637.11 Whereas more than half of India’s 1.3 billion that depend on agriculture do so for their livelihoods, with the average annual income of per farm household (from all sources) at less than US$1000.”
Pointing towards what an FTA with India could contain, GRAIN states, it would not just be about tariffs. It would “impose major changes” in regulatory frameworks, including “greater harmonization of health, safety, and marketing standards in order to expand trade in agriculture and food products.” In fact, it would mean allowing free marketing of genetically modified seeds to India – as seen in US-Mexico-Canada Agreement or USMCA.
“Harmonisation under US FTAs means bringing other countries closer into line with the US’ lack of health and safety precautions restrictions should be minimalized so that trade can grow”, says GRAIN, adding, “The USMCA contains a new chapter on regulatory good practices and another on sanitary measures that go further in advancing ‘equivalence’ between the three countries’ health and safety standards. The goal is to ensure that if one country says a product is safe under its regulations, the other two will accept the product as safe under theirs – and to speed up these determinations as much as possible.”
“The US seed industry is very excited about how the USMCA recognizes the importance of plant breeding innovation, including newer methods like gene editing, and contains provisions enhancing information exchange and cooperation related to the trade of agricultural biotechnology”, GRAIN says.
It adds, “Similarly, the US-China trade deal imposes speedier food safety checks for imports into China and speedier approvals in China for GMOs. As a result of the deal, China allowed the import of GM papaya and soybean from the US in December 2019, and the following month approved five GM crops for animal feed.”
FTA would mean a reversal of current Indian policy, under which no biotechnology-derived food crop is approved for consumption
In the trade talks between the US and UK, GRAIN states, the US agribusiness lobby pushed for “slashing of regulatory standards in the UK on pesticides, GM crops, and the production of chicken and meat products. Cargill, for instance, has demanded that the US seek “complete agricultural market access” for its company and “eliminate intended or unintended non-tariff barriers in the agriculture sector”, GRAIN points out, adding, “These could have far-reaching implications for food safety in the UK as it would force the country to open its border to hormone-fed beef, chlorine-washed chicken and GM foods that until now are banned in the UK.”
According to GRAIN, “India will have a fierce battle on this front if the FTA talks move ahead. In 2018, the US-India Business Council already came out with a recommendation that food products marketed in India with 5% or more GM ingredients be labeled accordingly. This was seen as a backhanded attempt to introduce GM food in India, where it is currently not allowed. US companies have equally been trying for the last several years to get India to import GM animal feed. Recently, India’s GM regulatory body has sought more inputs to possibly allow this. So, US corporate pressure to loosen restrictions in India is already happening.”
According to GRAIN, “Both the USMCA and US-China FTA contain provisions on the ‘low level presence’ of GMOs in imported food or agricultural products. The USMCA text requires importing countries like Mexico to ensure that the ‘inadvertent’ presence of GM material in food or farm products be dealt with very quickly and taking into account the safety approval for the product on the exporters’ side. In other words, the low-level presence of GM ingredients should be permitted, regardless of different national laws. The US-China phase one FTA provides for the same.”
GRAIN says, any Indo-US FTA on farm products would mean a reversal of the current Indian policy, under which “no biotechnology-derived food crop has been approved for consumption in India.” It states, “The ‘low level presence’ provisions would legalize contamination of India’s food system with GM materials not approved by India’s food safety authority for human consumption”, adding, “USMCA and US-China agreement both have sections on agricultural biotechnology which contain obligations for speeding up the approval process for GMOs.”
GRAIN thinks, “Another important concern about Trump’s trade deals is their requirement to ratify the 1991 convention of the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV) providing patent-like rights to seed companies.” Pointing out that “it has been a core element of US FTAs since the 1990s”, GRAIN says, “The USMCA obliges Mexico, which is a member of UPOV under the 1978 convention, to upgrade to the much harsher UPOV 1991 version. The US seed industry is very excited about this, calling it ‘a win’ for them.”
As India has a policy not to join the UPOV convention in order to protect the interests of its millions of small farmers and non-corporate breeders, GRAIN suggests, a new “US-India FTA will have serious implications for farmers’ rights in India if the government is put under pressure to join UPOV. Given the recent scandal over Indian farmers allegedly infringing a PepsiCo potato variety in 2019, it is quite possible that the US seed industry will push for stronger seed monopoly rights under the US-India FTA and eliminate possibilities for farmers to save seeds.”
Source- counterview.net, 29 December 2020.