Environmental groups, while praising aspects of
the first worldwide treaty governing trade in genetically modified organisms (GMO), criticise the scope of the agreement and worry it could be subverted
by powerful free trade interests.
Despite the demands of powerful agricultural trading partners led by the
United States, more than 130 nations meeting in
Montreal on Saturday adopted the first treaty regulating trade in GMOs,
setting the framework for continued debate over
biologically engineered foods.
Known as the "Biosafety Protocol," it is also the first treaty to recognise
what is known as the "precautionary principle," which
allows rejection of food imports if there is evidence, but not necessarily
proof, that they pose a danger to human health.
"This protocol is historic because international law has finally recognized
that GMOs are distinct and inherently different and that
the precautionary principle is the best way to approach these products,"
said Chee Yoke Ling, a lawyer with the Malaysia-based
Third World Network.
But she added that the game is not over yet. "We must still be vigilant to
give life to this protocol," Ling said.
Under the treaty, governments will signal whether or not they are willing
to accept imports of agricultural commodities, such as
seeds, that include genetically modified organisms, by communicating their
decision via the Internet.
Shipments that contain GMOs must also be clearly labeled under the treaty,
which is known officially as the Cartagena Protocol
on Biosafety, named after the Colombian city where negotiations collapsed
This provision will require seed companies and farmers to segregate their
GMO seeds from traditional varieties.
Protocol talks had faltered last year when a powerful agricultural trade
bloc known as the Miami Group - which includes
Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, the United States and Uruguay -
refused to sign the treaty.
The protocol is an outgrowth of the Convention on Biological Diversity
created during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Once 50 countries ratify the treaty and the Protocol goes into effect,
which could take two or three years, a new round of
negotiations on more specific labeling requirements will begin.
While the United States never ratified the convention and cannot become a
party to the Biosafety Protocol, US industry will have
to comply with the rules when exporting to nations that have ratified the
Environmentalists were happy that the talks did not collapse this time
around. But they were disappointed that the Miami Group
successfully blocked attempts to require labels on GMO food products.
"Against the odds, we have a precautionary protocol, but real consumer
choice on GM foods and crops has been sacrificed along
the way," says Liana Stupples of Friends of the Earth.
Labeling of GMO foods was to be one of the cornerstones of the protocol,
according to Matthew Stilwell, managing attorney for
the Centre for International Environmental Law's Geneva, Switzerland office.
"However, in the final moments of the negotiations, the protocol was
weakened, and no longer protects countries that want to
segregate and label (GMO) crops," Stilwell said.
The opposition of the Miami Group to labelling GMO food products "denies
customers the basic right to know what is in their
food," added Silvia Ribiero with the Canada-based Rural Advancement
European delegates, spurred by growing public fear in Europe over the new
technology, strongly favoured labeling of food
products, going so far as to propose a moratorium on approving GMO foods.
About half the soybeans and one-third of the corn grown in the United
States last year contained modified genes that make the
crops resistant to herbicides or insects. Opposition to the crops by
Europe, Mexico, and Japan has cost US farmers millions of
Advocacy groups remain worried that powerful corporate agricultural
interests could successfully undermine the treaty by
challenging a country's import restrictions before the World Trade
"The jury is still out on whether, in practice, protection of the
environment is put before free trade," said Liana Stupples with
Friends of the Earth.
The agreement contains a "savings clause," which emphasises that the new
protocol does not override rights and obligations under
other international agreements, including the Geneva-based trade body.
Since the WTO, for example, does not adhere to the precautionary principle,
a nation like the United States could challenge
another country's refusal to accept GMOs by arguing that the decision was
not based on WTO rules, which require ample
In a challenge before the WTO, GMO exporting countries could take advantage
of the savings clause, allowing the WTO to
possibly ignore the Protocol altogether, worry environmentalists.
Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Washington-based International
Centre for Technology Assessment, anticipates a WTO
challenge over trade in GMOs in the future.
"We are very concerned about this issue not being resolved," he said.
Kristin Dawkins, at the Minnesota-based Institute for Trade and Agriculture
said that even though the treaty is a "big step
forward...Monsanto and other GMO producers are no doubt already plotting
how to use the WTO to undermine the Protocol."
Groups and delegates also remain concerned that many developing nations
lack the technical, financial, institutional and human
resources to implement the treaty.
Developing nations "need greater capacity for assessing and managing risks,
establishing adequate information systems, and
developing expert human resources in biotechnology," said a document
released to reporters by the United Nations Environment
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