THE UNOFFICIAL MASCOT of the New World Order is a big, shiny, blue-black beetle with white spots, immense antennae, an equally immense appetite for wood, and no known predators on this continent. The Asian long-horned beetle has been chewing its way through the forests of East Asia for ages, but it wasn't spotted in this country until 1996, apparently after hitchhiking here in wooden freight pallets from China. It's since established itself in Chicago and New York, and cropped up in a few dozen other places—including Bellingham, Marysville, and Vancouver, BC, where it's been found in incoming pallets. The bug experts fear a beetle plague that will make the notorious gypsy moths seem like ants at a picnic. Gypsy moths weaken trees; the beetles kill them. Gypsy moths favor oaks, which are relatively scarce here. Asian long-horned beetles savor all sorts of trees—especially maples, which are common here. State entomologist Eric LaGasa sent big-leaf and vine maple samples back East for a taste test: "The beetles loved our maples."
For environmentalist critics of US trade policy and the World Trade Organization, the Asian long-horned beetle points up all that can go wrong when economic and biological globalization intersect. They note that the beetle (and who knows what other pests) breezed through a gaping loophole in the US regulations that are supposed to stop invasive pests at the borders: Lumber imports are subject to inspection, and some types of trees are banned from import, but pallet, cable spools, and other packing made from cheap, infestation-prone wood have been unregulated. A year ago, US authorities began requiring that pallets from China—but only those from China—be heat-treated or fumigated. "China's just an infinitesimal part" of the problem, notes US Forest Service entomologist Hal Burdsall, who's helping conduct a risk assessment of infested wood packing. "We've got wood coming in from everywhere."
Because it's not a WTO member, China couldn't appeal to have the US pallet rule overturned as an unfair trade restriction. But China's trade outlet Hong Kong, which is a member, has threatened to appeal, in which case the United States would have to defend its right to demand sterilized wood, just as the European Union defended its right (unsuccessfully) to refuse hormone-treated beef.
US trade and agriculture officials counter that the beetle crisis proves the system works: Once the problem showed up, they made sure pallets from China were safe, and now they're considering rules for all wood packing. And despite rumbling, Hong Kong hasn't appealed to the WTO. But that may just be dumb luck; China hardly wanted to rock the boat while it sought a trade accord with the US.
Meanwhile, China has begun requiring that pallets from this country be sterilized because of a pine nematode that's already invaded Japanese forests. US officials say China has a point and they won't appeal. Everywhere you look, another pest.
SPECIES INVASIONS ARE the dark side of surging international trade and travel, a global ecological time bomb whose explosive potential is just starting to get full attention. Indeed, the whole process of economic globalization is just one aspect of a biological globalization that is transforming ecosystems as well as societies everywhere. Across the globe, biological "harmonization"—i.e., homogenization—is unfolding with eerie parallels to the trade harmonization that is the great goal of free trade advocates everywhere. Globe-trotting organisms, from microscopic pathogens to mighty trees and ubiquitous homo sapiens, are discovering the joys of comparative advantage, conquering new habitats the way exporters conquer new markets. On every continent you'll encounter the same house sparrow, McDonald's, Mariah Carey tunes, and HIV.
The costs are already enormous; by one estimate, exotic pests cost US agriculture, forestry, and construction $80 billion a year, more than the value of US agricultural exports. The ecological effects are even more alarming; through competition, predation, and infection, invasive species are now widely considered the second most important cause, after habitat loss, of extinction and lost biodiversity.
Nations try to keep invasives out through what are called "sanitary and phytosanitary measures," SPS for short, which may require inspection, treatment, quarantine, and even bans of suspect products. Such measures have been traditionally inconsistent, biased, and subject to political vagaries—"the protectionist measures of choice," as Jim Jesernig, director of Washington's Department of Agriculture, puts it. So the WTO proposes to ensure a level, open trading field by requiring that SPS rules be based on a proper risk assessment that "takes into account" international standards, "available scientific evidence," "relevant economic factors," and "the relative cost-effectiveness of alternative approaches." Members must "avoid arbitrary or unjustifiable distinctions" that "result in discrimination or a disguised restriction on international trade."
So far the WTO has heard three cases of alleged protectionism disguised as sanitary rules—conveniently speaking to each of the three main areas of SPS protection. One concerned animal health and safety: Canada, backed by the United States, contested Australia's salmon rules. One concerned plants: The US insisted that after approving methyl bromide fumigation of imported Red and Golden Delicious apples, Japan couldn't require a whole round of new testing on Fujis and Galas (the varieties Japanese consumers actually buy). And the most controversial case involved food safety: The US appealed the European ban on hormone-treated beef. The WTO overturned all these bans and rejected them again on appeal.
SCORE THREE FOR TRADE, zero for protection/protectionism. US trade officials and agricultural representatives say this shows how well the WTO agreement is working—just like America's own rules against invasive pests. "We're confident those (WTO) rules provide us the latitude to do anything we would under US law," says one trade official.
That's just the problem, the greens counter: Both the US and WTO schemes pay too little heed to the precautionary principle and too much to free trade. In their criticisms of US efforts, the greens get some official support. Last July the National Plant Board issued a report commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture criticizing the efforts to stem invasive pests. It concluded that USDA regulators were frantically trying to catch up with the global marketplace and its "dramatically increased" biological risks, using inadequate organization, technology, and scientific resources. And the General Accounting Office two years ago dinged the government's haphazard, uncoordinated responses to other countries' SPS rules.
But the greens are on their own in challenging the WTO agreement; neither government nor business, nor even the hormone-hating European Union, wants to open up a can of protectionist worms. Nevertheless, the American Lands Alliance, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, and Sierra Club propose several key amendments to the WTO's sanitary/ phytosanitary agreement that would give ecological concerns more weight and, by default, trade interests less. When data is lacking to perform a full risk assessment, they would let nations base bans and other SPS measures on "analogies, historical examples, expert opinion, or evidence of generalized risks"—on something like a journalistic rather than scientific standard of proof. And they would establish three key international conservation treaties (the conventions on the Law of the Sea, Biodiversity, and the Conservation of Nature) as authorities in arbitrating SPS issues.
The WTO agreement currently invokes the international commissions on food safety and plant and animal health as authorities and allows members to turn to other "relevant international organizations" as needed. That, trade officials insist, ensures that environmental concerns do get heard. The problem is the "as needed" cop-out, counters Faith Campbell, who coordinates the Lands Alliance's endangered species program; without a mandate to consider those concerns, they inevitably fall behind in the press of other issues. And, she insists, requiring specific risk assessments for each SPS restriction, rather than generalizing from others, puts an impossible burden on USDA, which already faces a backlog of some 400 risk assessments just to justify current rules: "There are huge gaps they're just not finding the will to address."
Indeed, the Asian long-horned beetle seems to have gotten into this country through just such a gap. Karen Ripley, the Washington Department of Natural Resources' forest entomologist, recalls that "for a long time, people noted that there was a gap in the rules" that allowed wood packing materials to come in unchecked. But no one wanted to undertake "the expense and difficulty of regulating such low-value materials." In other words, in the language of the WTO, it wasn't "cost-effective." Now controlling the beetle from hell, if it can be done, will cost much, much more than that ounce of prevention would have.