Over the years, politicians have put down environmentalists as fuzzy-thinking theorists uncommitted to the Almighty God of the Gross National Product. But the public, as it has been exposed to polluted water, air and land, has learned to pay attention.
Now, a coalition of environmentally aware and consumer organizations is sounding a new warning and -- typically -- is being ignored by large segments of the press. The coalition charges that in pressing for completion of the current round of multilateral trade negotiations under the aegis of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the Bush administration is willing to weaken existing American standards governing the safety of food.
The GATT accords cover about 80 percent of $3 trillion in annual trade among 96 nations. Negotiations are now underway, in what is known as the ''Uruguay Round,'' to revise and extend them, especially in trade in services and agriculture.
The GATT system has been the umbrella under which global trade boomed since World War II. It is widely supported as a main bulwark against protectionism, and its benefits are eagerly sought by developing countries -- and more recently by the Soviet Union.
But the largely positive results of the GATT should not be used as a cover-up for deflating environmental protection -- and that is precisely what is being charged by the coalition. It says that the Bush administration is ready to accept international standards that often are not as protective as our own.
Two congressional resolutions have been introduced in support of this new environmental crusade. One, by Rep. Al Swift (D-Wash.), would block imports that do not meet minimal environmental, consumer and worker safety standards. That could be too broad a brush used by protectionists more interested in shutting off imports than in environmental safety.
The other resolution, offered by Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), goes more directly to the specific issue. It calls on Congress to withhold approval of the Uruguay Round until an environmental assessment of the whole package has been made. And then the Scheuer proposal would require that international environmental standards ''become a floor, not a ceiling'' for state and national standards.
There is an impressive array of groups supporting these resolutions, including the National Wildlife Federation, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Ralph Nader organization, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Toxics Campaign.
They challenge the Bush administration proposal to ''harmonize'' food-safety standards. For example, Scheuer charges, the United States is willing to accept a United Nations food code known as Codex Alimentarius as a major benchmark to determine whether any individual country's pesticide standard is really a disguised trade barrier.
But according to the coalition, the Codex is weaker in many cases than existing Food and Drug Administration or Environmental Protection Agency standards. The National Family Farm Coalition says that if Codex standards were applied in the United States, imported foods could avoid FDA restrictions on DDT, Alar, sulfa antibiotics or bovine growth hormone (BGH), which is used to boost milk production in cows.
For example, the use of DDT to treat apples is now banned in the United States. But under the Bush proposal, DDT-treated apples, grown overseas, could be imported and sold without restriction. According to the protesting groups, the Codex allows 50 times the amount of pesticide residue in bananas and peaches set by the FDA code.
If such weaker international standards were to apply, it's conceivable that America would be driven to lower its own higher safety standards to avoid charges of protectionism. ''U.S. consumers and exporters should not be asked to pay ransom to other countries if they wish to set standards higher than the rest of the world's,'' said Alex Hittle of Friends of the Earth. ''Nor should the United States try to force foreign consumers, who might choose higher standards, to accept more poisons in their food as we try to 'open up' foreign markets for our exports. We owe it to ourselves and to our friends abroad to scrutinize the GATT's environmental efforts.''
An administration source told me that the environmental groups are ''not well informed,'' and that if the Codex were adopted, the United States could still insist ''on a higher standard, if we can defend it scientifically.'' But the source added: ''It may be that some of our standards are too high.''
The National Resources Defense Council says that in contested cases, the decision would be made ''by a panel of experts, who may be consultants to the pesticide industry, meeting behind closed doors at the GATT secretariat in Geneva.''
This is an issue that needs a full airing. At a minimum, the coalition's demands for public debate and media attention are justified.