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WORLD: Critics Fear New Treaty Subordinates Biosafety to Trade

by Danielle KnightInter Press Service
February 1st, 2000

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 last February.

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 treaty.

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 Foundation International.

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 dollars.

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 Organisation (WTO).

"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 scientific proof.

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 Programme.

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