Safety rules for genes and food

Some 130 nations meet this week to negotiate safeguards for biotech

Consider the dilemma of farmer Joe Cey: genetically modified (GM) crops or not.

For a few years now, he's been growing GM canola on his 1,200-acre farm in Wilkie, Saskatchewan. "It's a real good fit: there's less chemical use on the land. I don't till the soil as much, so I use less fuel, and there's less soil disturbance," he says.

But the consumer backlash against GM foods in both Europe and North America is now so strong that as he pages through the seed catalogues this winter, he's not sure what to order.

"The last thing you want to do is grow a crop you can't sell," Mr. Cey says.

It is against this backdrop that diplomats from more than 130 countries have gathered in Montreal this week in a last-ditch effort to negotiate a safe-use treaty on one of the most contentious global issues of our day: genetically altered organisms - plants, seeds, animals, and food.

The public discussion of GM products sounds like the debates about nuclear power or global warming. Skeptics say, "We don't want this stuff until you can prove there's no danger." And advocates say "You can't prove a negative; let's proceed, and assess dangers as we identify."

Around the negotiating tables, the biosafety protocol debate is over what rules should govern the international trade of these controversial products. The talks are conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, based in Montreal.

Around the dinner tables of North America and Europe, the GM food debate reflects inherently different cultural attitudes toward foods.

North Americans have long had an abundance of cheap food. Their kitchen shelves are more typically stocked with more processed than fresh foods. Europeans have known wartime and postwar food shortages and are better willing to pay more for food. For Europeans, food is often closely tied to local community tradition. Europeans tend to shop in local markets, eat more seasonally, and don't expect fresh lettuce to last a week in the refrigerator.

"The food supply is much more part of the culture," says Chef Daniel Gilbert of Daniel's of Nobleton, a Toronto-area restaurant, who has worked in Europe. "If you're messing with the food supply, you're messing with the culture."

Cultural concerns and differences have been exacerbated by recent European health concerns over British beef and toxic substances found in animal feed in Belgium.

These differences are also reflected in the positions among groups of nations in Montreal.

On one side are the so-called Miami group of countries - Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, and the United States, which among them have the lion's share of the world's biotechnology industry. Half of the US soybean, and one-third of the corn crop were grown from GM seeds. They want to see a minimally restrictive regulatory regime.

On the other side are developing countries and the European Union nations, who are philosophically more skeptical of GM food; more protective of their traditional farmers; and reflexively resistant to being pushed around by the United States.

Considering the opposing views, observers say privately they won't be surprised if the Montreal talks break down without an accord.

The deliberations on the Biosafety Protocol will touch on a broad range of issues, key among them are:

*Should the accord cover just seeds or processed foods as well? Biotech advocates say that processed foods - such as a bottle of vegetable oil - do not pose the same kind of threat as seeds. Skeptics counter that any material becoming part of the food chain should be included.

*Who should be liable in the case of damage caused by GM seeds?

*Will the biosafety protocol be subservient to World Trade Organization rules? Joyce Groote, president of BioteCanada, an industry group, and chair of the Global Industry Coalition, says that WTO can oversee biodiversity issues connected with trade - for example, a country wanting to ban an import on grounds of environmental risk. But Michael Khoo of Greenpeace says, "If the protocol is subservient to the WTO, it will never protect the environment."

*What sort of mechanism is needed to segregate GM from non-GM products? Advocates insist on such segregation; skeptics say it is possible - but at a high price. Who would pay?

*How should the "precautionary principle" be applied? Skeptics say, "We don't want this stuff until you can prove there's no danger." And advocates say "You can't prove a negative; let's proceed, and assess dangers as we identify them."

Whatever the diplomats resolve, "this will have a huge impact on international trade in genetically modified foodstuffs," says Dr. Alan McHughen, a molecular biologist at the University of Saskatchewan.

The negotiations, says Douglas Powell, a food-safety expert at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, will answer the question, "Ultimately, does science have a leadership role in determining public policy on this issue? Or do we want to go back to a European feudal system of technological oligarchs?"

He argues that the rules of the World Trade Organization, which require signatories to provide scientific evidence of the dangers they are claiming as the reason to exclude a product from their markets, are the standard that should be upheld on food safety issues.

But farmer Cey and the others can't wait for the diplomats to work this one out.

McCain Foods of New Brunswick, one of the world's largest producers of frozen French fries, announced last fall it would no longer accept GM potatoes for processing. "We think genetically modified material is very good science," corporate chairman Harrison McCain said at the time, but "we've got too many people worried about eating the product, and we're in the business of giving our customers what they want, not what we think they should have."

Says farmer Cey in Saskatchewan, "They let their farmers down. If I were a potato farmer on Prince Edward Island, I'd be discouraged."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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