America's business and political leaders constantly argue that, in a free-market system, the consumer is king. And they also declare that democracy, where the people rule, is the best form of government.
So why is the U.S. government cheering its recent victory at the World Trade Organization in a case that tramples the sovereignty of the people as both citizens and consumers?
The dispute started in 2003, when the United States, with support from Argentina and Canada, accused the European Union of illegally blocking sales of genetically engineered agricultural products.
In its decision, the World Trade Organization panel of judges did not say whether they thought genetically engineered crops were safe. But they did rule that the European Union system was too slow and this pace amounted to an illegal moratorium, though a few crops have recently been given the green light.
European governments and the general public have had strong doubts about the environmental and health effects of genetically engineered food products. They have had much stricter procedures for reviewing the safety of such products than in the United States, where the relatively lax and corporate-influenced review process has repeatedly been criticized as inadequate by the National Research Council, a body of scientists that advises the federal government.
As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that developers of genetically engineered products are responsible for their products' safety. But the spokesman for Monsanto, the major corporate force behind genetically engineered crops, says, "Monsanto should not have to vouch for the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible."
Individual European countries have been adamant about safeguards against genetically engineered foods. Nine countries have now enacted their own moratoriums, which European environment ministers overwhelmingly endorsed last year but the WTO panel judged was in violation of trade rules.
The European Union also has rules requiring that genetically engineered products be traceable and clearly labeled. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy expects the United States to challenge these rules next, according to spokesman Ben Lilliston.
The primary international treaty covering these issues -- the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety that went into effect in 2003 (despite U.S. refusal to sign) -- grants nations the rights to take precautions to protect consumers and the environment. That means countries can require that products are proven safe before allowing them to be sold on their soil.
European public opinion supports taking strict precautions. A poll earlier this month indicated that 62 percent of all European are worried about genetically engineered products, and another poll showed 78 percent of French people favor a temporary ban.
So if the consumer is king, why don't American farmers and export companies simply produce what their customers want?
The problem is that corporations like Monsanto have sold American farmers on biotech crops, the federal government wants to support some of these corporations, and the Bush administration wants to weaken government regulation wherever it can.
The administration is also attempting to delude farmers into thinking that their financial problems are a result of the European ban, not bad agriculture and trade policy, according to Steve Suppan, an agricultural trade analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
Monsanto and other biotech advocates strongly object to any requirements that food be labeled as containing genetically modified agricultural products.
But even the most ardent defender of free markets would acknowledge that if markets are going to work properly, all the participants must be fully informed. How can King (or Queen) Consumer decide what to buy if the ingredients are secret?
The World Trade Organization decision also nullifies democracy at all levels by attempting to override decisions by individual European countries, by the European Union and by the international community (in its Biosafety Protocol).
At the WTO, the principle is trade, especially the interests of corporations like Monsanto, over everything else. That principle and power is bad for consumers and citizens everywhere.
David Moberg is a senior editor at the Chicago-based In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com) and writes widely on workplace issues. He can be reached at email@example.com.