The New York Times on the web
February 25, 1999
U.S. and Allies Block Treaty on Genetically Altered Goods By ANDREW POLLACK
CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Attempts to forge the world's first global treaty to
regulate trade in genetically modified products failed Wednesday morning
when the United States and five other big agricultural exporters rejected a
proposal that had the support of the rest of the roughly 130 nations. The
treaty would have required that exporters of genetically altered plants,
seeds or other organisms obtain approval in advance from the importing
nation. The talks broke down over the question of whether this requirement
would also apply to agricultural commodities like wheat and corn.
Proponents of the treaty, especially European nations, have resisted
genetically modified products, worried that not enough is known about the
possible effects on human health and the environment. But Washington and
its allies have argued that such regulations would entangle the world's
food trade in red tape.
Some 25 percent to 45 percent of major crops grown in the United States are
genetically modified, and American negotiators feared the proposal could
block or stall more than $50 billion in annual farm exports. Bleary-eyed
delegates from many nations, who have been negotiating day and night for
more than a week, expressed fury at the United States, accusing it of
intransigence and of putting the interests of its world-leading farming and
biotechnology industries above the environment. "It's five nations against
the world," said Joseph M. Goto, the delegate from Zimbabwe, although
Washington and its allies actually total six. Those in agreement with the
United States are Canada, Australia, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. "There
could be no greater injustice than that," he said. The United States, he
added, "is holding the world at ransom." The delegates agreed to suspend
the talks and resume them no later than May 2000. The United States had
urged this, saying there were still too many unresolved issues to allow a
consensus to be achieved by the deadline, which was Tuesday. In the
meantime, individual countries, particularly in Europe, will continue to
limit the introduction of genetically engineered agricultural products,
"It would be much better to get a sound instrument a year hence than to get
a flawed instrument today," said Rafe Pomerance, deputy assistant secretary
of state for environment and development. But delegates from some other
nations feared the process would now lose momentum. Even without a treaty,
countries can limit the import of genetically engineered seeds or foods
under their own law, subject to challenge under world trading rules. Some
countries, particularly in Europe, are doing this. The treaty was mainly
meant to help developing countries, which now lack the expertise and the
legislation to regulate biotechnology. The United States has often taken a
stance different from much of the rest of the world on trade and
environmental matters. It has not ratified the Convention on Biological
Diversity reached at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 because
some senators fear that American interests would be
jeopardized. The current talks on the so-called Biosafety Protocol are an
outgrowth of the biodiversity treaty.
The Biosafety Protocol would require exporters of genetically modified
organisms, such as seeds into which new traits had been added by
gene-splicing, to obtain prior approval from the importing country. Such
regulations are intended to allow countries to reduce the ecological risks
from introducing genetically altered plants, animals and microorganisms
into the environment.
Some scientists worry, for instance, that a gene conferring insect
resistance or drought tolerance on a crop could spread to weedy relatives
of that crop through cross-pollination, creating superweeds. The main
sticking point in the biosafety negotiations was whether the requirement
for advance approval by the importing nation should apply to genetically
altered agricultural commodities meant for eating or processing, as opposed
Washington and its allies argued that such a requirement would not protect
biodiversity because commodities like corn and soy beans do not enter the
environment. Developing nations and the European Union argued that
commodities should be included because they have seeds that can be planted.
Some developing nations even wanted the treaty to cover products made from
genetic engineering, such as cornflakes made from modified corn, or blue
jeans made from altered cotton, but this was dropped from the final draft.
Another unresolved point of dispute was Washington's position that World
Trade Organization rules should take precedence over the Biosafety
Protocol, to prevent other nations from using biosafety as an excuse to
erect trade barriers. The developing nations and Europe wanted the
biosafety protocol to be equal to WTO rules or take precedence over them.
Michael Williams, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program,
said this was the first environmental treaty he could remember in at least
20 years in which an agreement was not reached by the self-imposed deadline.
But officials here said the big stakes involved for industry made this
matter particularly difficult. "It's the first time that you have really
possibly a legally binding instrument dealing with trade and the
environment at the same time," said Veit Koester, a Danish environmental
official who chaired the working group that drew up the draft of the
treaty. It perhaps complicated things that the industry involved was
biotechnology, in which the United States holds a firm lead. There have
been a rising number of disputes in recent years between developing and
developed nations over the control of genetic resources, the raw material
for biotechnology, which some analysts predict will be to the next century
what oil and metal were to this one.
The United States in one sense was in a strong negotiating position because
it did not want a treaty as badly as the developing nations and therefore
had less reason to compromise. Indeed, three years ago Washington opposed
starting the biosafety negotiations, and many people at this meeting
thought its real intention was to torpedo the treaty.
"The last two years of negotiation have been a constant attempt to delay,
not negotiate, block," said Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, a
Malaysia-based group working on environmental and development issues.
"They've always said, 'No, No, No,' and they delayed and they diluted," she
Still, the United States could have been isolated. But it strengthened its
hand by aligning with Canada, Australia and three agricultural exporters
from the developing world: Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Without the
support of such major exporters, any protocol would have been meaningless.
"We were just too important, too big and maybe too thoughtful to be
ignored," Pomerance, the American negotiator, said. He said Washington did
make compromises. But he added: "There were two compromises we were not
prepared to make. One is to tie up trade in the world's food supply. The
second is to allow this regime, without a lot of deliberation, to undermine
the WTO trading regime." Both the U.S. government and the biotechnology
industry would have something to gain from a treaty, were it not too
onerous. A treaty could have helped assuage public fears about
biotechnology, which are much greater elsewhere in the world than in the
United States. And having a unified global regulatory scheme would be
easier for companies than having each nation adopt its own rules.
The European Union has extensive regulations restricting the planting of
seeds as well as the importing of food that has been genetically altered.
Individual countries have enacted their own patchwork of rules. "We would
like to see a little more international harmonization of the regulatory
framework," said Willy De Greef, head of regulatory and government affairs
for Novartis Seeds AG, a division of the big Swiss pharmaceutical company.
"It creates a level playing field and clarity." But the food and
biotechnology industries and the U.S. government argued that genetic
engineering has not been shown to be a big threat to biodiversity,
especially compared with the destruction of tropical forests to create
farmland. They also said that environmental groups and developing nations
were trying to expand the treaty to deal with human health and the social
and economic effects of biotechnology. "They are trying to get this
protocol to develop issues that are really important but not part of the
protocol," said Joyce Groote, a spokeswoman for Canada's biotechnology
Environmental groups have complained in the last few days that the protocol
had been watered down to the point of near insignificance. But in the end,
some said that even the weakened treaty would have been better than none.
"The environment's the loser, always," said Beth Burrows, president of the
Edmonds Institute, a nonprofit organization in Edmonds, Wash., which deals
with biosafety issues. "There was no moral high ground here," she added.
"There was no scientific high ground here. It was just cheap power
Guardian 25 February 1999 UK
GM foods to be taken off menu in schools
GENETICALLY modified food is to be taken off the menu in schools, old
people's homes and town halls after local government leaders recommended a
five-year ban in the face of ministerial reassurances that the food is
The advice from the Local Government Association followed pressure from
parents and relatives of elderly people in council-run care homes, who
contacted local authorities with concerns over the possible health effects
of GM products.
The association said yesterday that "the spectre of many unknown factors"
surrounding GM foods had raised public alarm.
The recommendation, which will affect almost 10 million children in 26,000
schools in England and Wales as well as 1.5 million local government
workers and thousands of people receiving meals-on-wheels, will come as a
blow to ministers, who hoped they had succeeded in riding out the explosion
of concern over GM foods.
Tony Blair, who says he is happy to eat GM products, has rejected calls for
a five-year moratorium on the commercial growing of crops, arguing that
sufrlcient safeguards are in place.
The association's public protection committee took its unanimous decision
to advise English and Welsh authorities to wait until 2004 before deciding
whether to use GM products after receiving a report detailing health
The study, by the head of consumer protection and environmental health,
Ian Foulkes, said that scientists did not "fully understand what happens
when they fuse genes into the DNA of an other organism", and urged the
Government to take "an even more precautionary approach" because of
the uncertainty of the long-term health impact.
The committee is to write to Mr Blair about its fears. Councillor John
Ryan, chairman of the committee, said: "As major buyers and suppliers of
food councils should be very cautious on behalf of the public many of whom
are vulnerable, such as schoolchildren and the elderly"
The association wanted the public to be involved in decisions on the use
and regulation of these foodstuffs, he added, in a direct challenge to the
Government's contention that it has taken public concern into account. Mr
Ryan said that seven of the 13 members of the main advisory committee for
approving releases of GM crops were involved in GM companies.
The recommendation is not binding on councils. But the association strongly
advised them to heed public concerns and comply.
The advice is doubly embarassing for the Goverment since the Labour-led
association is generally highly loyal, despite Mr Blair's often combative
approach to local government.
Association sources insisted that there was no intention of "getting into a
fight with the government".
But the Tories were quick to exploit the challenge, claiming that even
Labour councillors had lost faith in the Government's policy
Ministers yesterday dow played the recommendation. The food standards
minister Jeff Rooker, said:"It is their decision - they are responsible for
it. Our task is to give people a choice. We can do that with labelling and
information about alternative non-GM supplies."
[End part 1]
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