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Canada: Biosafety Talks Trigger Demonstrations and Debate

Environment News Service
January 24th, 2000

MONTREAL, Canada -- Delegates from 130 nations arriving this morning at the International Aviation Building in Montreal to restart talks on a set of rules for the transborder movement of genetically modified organisms were greeted by protesters and police. But temperatures of 15 degrees Celsius below zero kept demonstrators subdued and police idle.

Greenpeacers bearing an 23 foot long corn cob decked out as Dracula were in the frozen crowd. Activists climbed the building to hang banners warning of weak biosafety standards. Also in the crowd were environmentalists, farmers and consumers groups who object to the use of biotechnology for fear its products will cause health and environmental problems and change the natural diversity of living creatures.

The talks aim to develop rules for the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOs), specifically focusing on transboundary movement of any LMO that may have an adverse effect on biological diversity.

The negotiations are the resumption of the Extraordinary Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (ExCOP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The session was suspended last February when initial formal discussions in Cartagena, Colombia failed to adopt a protocol.

Three sets of informal consultations have taken place since then - Montreal, July 1999; Vienna, September 1999; and in Montreal during the past four days.

On Saturday, there were simultaneous demonstrations against genetically modified organisms in major Canadian cities. The one in Montreal was the biggest mass protest against genetically modified organisms in North America to date.

During informal talks since Thursday delegates worked from a text of the protocol contained in the draft report of the ExCOP in Cartagena and a set of proposals developed by ExCOP President and Minister of Environment of Colombia Juan Mayr to start resolving outstanding issues and finalize a protocol for adoption.

As a starting point, the delegates reaffirmed the political will to conclude the protocol.

The negotiating groups in the Biosafety Protocol process are the Miami Group (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, and the U.S.), the European Union, the Central and Eastern European Countries, the Compromise Group, and the Like-Minded Group of Countries which includes most of the developing countries.

Some of the issues on the table include liability - if LMOs enter the environment and cause damage, who pays?

There is the contentious issue of labeling. The European Union has imposed a regulation that requires food producers to label their products as containing genetically modified organisms if they contain more than one percent of genetically modified materials produced by biotechnological methods. But at a conference on biotechnology in The Hague, The Netherlands on Friday, U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce David Aaron state the U.S. position against labeling. "We think it is a mistake to stigmatize a technology that has had no demonstrable ill effects," Aaron said.

"The preparatory negotiations during the last four days indicate that the Miami Group, headed by the USA and Canada, continue their strategy to obstruct any global agreement on biosafety," said Michael Khoo of Greenpeace.

Another unresolved question relates to the Protocol's relationship to other international agreements, particularly those under the World Trade Organization.

More demonstrations against the spread of living modified organisms took place in London, England and in Aarhus, Denmark.

Outside Canada House in Trafalgar Square, London, banners bearing the slogan "Gene dictators - the world is watching" were dropped outside Canada House on the south side of Trafalgar Square, as the doors were symbolically sealed with biohazard tape by protesters wearing decontamination suits.

The protest by the UK based Genetic Engineering Network focuses on the Miami Group who demonstrators say are blocking progress to strong regulation for the international movement of all LMOs. They say The overwhelming majority of nations support a strong environmental focus, while the six nations of the Miami Group want to base the Protocol on trade, the demonstrators claim.

In Aarhus harbor, about 40 Greenpeace activists from Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, France and Germany climbed two cranes, preventing the ship Legionario from unloading its shipment of genetically engineered soy-pellets intended for animal fodder. The Legionario is carrying a 45,000 ton cargo of soy pellets.

"While food retailers around Europe are increasingly turning away from genetically engineered ingredients, GE crops continue to enter the European food chain through meat producing countries like Denmark," said Jan Sndergaard of Greenpeace. "European consumers have clearly stated that they dont want to eat GE food but the meat industry continues to ignore the consumer opinion as long as the unregulated import of GE animal fodder continues."

A declaration supporting agricultural biotechnology signed by over 600 scientists from around the world was released today in Montreal. A media briefing, sponsored by International Consumers for Civil Society, featured Dr. C.S. Prakash, Director of the Center for Plant Biotechnology Research at Tuskegee University, the author of the proclamation.

The declaration states that "recombinant DNA techniques constitute powerful and safe means for the modification of organisms and can contribute substantially in enhancing quality of life by improving agriculture, health care, and the environment."

International Consumers for Civil Society is a coalition of 22 non-profit groups in 10 countries which emphasizes the importance of free markets, open trade, and technological improvements.

The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research weighed in today with a study pointing out that the licensing procedure for genetically modified organisms is flawed. Although applicants for licenses are required to provide information about the dangers of the newly developed biotechnology to humans and the environment, they themselves decide to some extent what information is relevant. Philosophers at Leiden University who studied the issue concluded that the applicant who is naturally an interested party is "in a position to influence the outcome of the approval procedure by deciding that certain information is irrelevant to the risk assessment."

In Washington, DC, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute and Sea Change, an independent environmental analysis group, presented a debate on the value and safety of genetically modified organisms at the Raeburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill and later briefed Congressional representatives.

During the debate, Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, author of the 1997 book "The Doubly Green Revolution," said, "I believe that the task of feeding the world can only be undertaken by a mixture of sustainable farming techniques and biotechnology." One obstacle to feeding people in developing countries arises because patenting cuts them out of the new technologies. Conway said, "Unless the biotech companies make these new technologies freely available, we will not see these new crops in developing countries."

Calestous Juma, special advisor at Harvard University's Center for International Development, and a leading environmentalist from Kenya, believes the greatest need for genetically engineered crops is in developing countries. He is concerned that developed countries may eliminate or restrict access to these crops.

"Developing countries have been interested in biotechnology for 10 to 15 years." They were the impetus for the UN convention on biotech, Juma says. "But the debate has been hijacked by a small number of countries and by activists."

"I plead for some degree of caution on the part of industrialized countries that believe developing countries should conduct their business the way industrialized countries would like them to," Juma said.





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