Global pact on GMOs approved

On Saturday, after a week of talks, 130 nations ratified a trade treaty on engineered food.

A new global treaty intended to protect people and nature from the potential dangers of commerce in genetically modified seeds and foods has all participants declaring victory: Greenpeace. Biotechnology companies. Developed and developing nations.

"Success has quite a lot of mothers and fathers," said Klaus Tpfer, executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program.

The accord on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), reached here Saturday, breaks new ground in international law by giving environmental protection the same priority as free trade. The deal marks "the beginning of a new level of sophistication in environmental agreements," says David Anderson, Canada's environment minister.

Whether it makes consumers feel more or less safe about GMOs remains to be seen. The treaty, for example, does not deal with the labeling of GMO food on store shelves - only with labeling commodities such as corn or soybeans shipped between countries.

The negotiations had pitted the "Miami group" of six food-exporting countries with strong biotechnology sectors - led by Canada and the United States - against the biotech skeptics of the European Union and the developing world.

The skeptics have insisted, "Prove to us that GMOs are safe before we allow them in." Advocates have countered, "You demonstrate the dangers before you block our access to your markets."

The new protocol states, "Lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient relevant scientific information and knowledge ... shall not prevent [a country] from taking a decision" with regard to the import of GMOs.

The agreement's language is seen as precedent-setting: This "precautionary principle" stresses the idea of better safe than sorry. Both the EU and the developing countries claimed victory on this point: Margot Wallstrm, the EU commissioner for the environment, called it "an enormous step forward."

But representatives of the biotechnology industry say they can accept this formulation, too. "It's rules-based; it's science-based," said Joyce Groote of the Global Industry Coalition. Decisions, therefore, will not be based on unfounded assertions.

The scope of the new biosafety protocol, reached under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, represents the resolution of another important issue. Industry had wanted to limit the protocol strictly to seeds and other organisms intended for introduction into the environment. The idea was that processed foods ("commodities," in this context) are not going to sprout and reproduce. But these processed foods (like canola or corn oil) are addressed and won't require permission for export.

The liability question - who will pay if something goes wrong - was kicked down the road: The protocol calls for further discussion. And the decision not to subordinate the biosafety protocol to World Trade Organization agreements raises other legal questions.

But negotiating success here was all the sweeter for the delegates because of last year's acrimonious efforts in Cartagena, Colombia. The deal also comes just weeks after the collapse of trade talks in Seattle left many wondering about the future of global diplomacy in general.

The accord was an implicit acknowledgment that developing countries hold some valuable cards in the biotechnology policy game.

As Tewold Egziabher of Ethiopia, chair of the group of like-minded countries pointed out, his bloc represented "80 percent of the world's population, and much more than 80 percent of its biodiversity."

Noting that industry likes predictability in regulation, Ms. Groote said the accord would be "very good for the biotechnology industry," including its prospects for international investment.

But Frank Loy, a US State Department official, pronounced the deal "not perfect." And it is clear that the US has not abandoned its hard line on biotech. Speaking of the liability issue, David Sandalow, head of the US delegation, told reporters, "The protocol mandates a discussion; it doesn't mandate a result."

Much of the credit for the deal goes to Juan Mayr Maldonado, the Colombian environment minister who chaired the negotiating conference. Conspicuous, within the sea of diplomatic gray suits, for his colorful shirt and trademark loud necktie, Mr. Mayr sometimes sought to move negotiations ahead with techniques more typical of "feel-good" business retreats than UN conferences. At one point, he asked the hundreds of observers and delegates present in a ballroom to stand up for a moment, join hands, and think about how a deal might be reached.

"I don't want to see any hands free," he insisted. And the group complied, even the media. The tension-breaking effect on the atmosphere of the room was palpable.

By 4 a.m. Saturday, the blocs were down to one outstanding issue: labeling of GMO commodities shipped internationally. Dr. Egziahber of Ethiopia huddled his delegates. The Miami group has proposed a compromise, he reported: labeling that states that the products in question "may contain" GMOs - rather than that they do contain them.

"If we accept this, the Miami group can live with the rest" of the protocol, he told his group. "The onus is on us." He reminded his delegates that they had already won much of what they wanted.

Delegates looked at one another, clearly unhappy with this weasel phrasing. They were aware that the marketplace has already begun rejecting GMOs. For example, Frito-Lay announced on Friday that it will no longer purchase altered corn.

Then one spoke up: Do we want our objections to what he called "one ridiculous statement," he asked, to spoil chances for a deal?

Egziabher acknowledged that he was hearing no calls to reject the compromise, but added, "I would have preferred an explicit 'yes.' " Calls of "yes," "yes," "yes," came from around the group, which, like the conference as a whole, worked by consensus.

He looked around one last time to be sure he had support, albeit with misgivings, and then announced, "We have a protocol."

Then without a word, he and Mayr enfolded each other in a long victory hug. Within minutes, Mayr had gathered all the delegations into the chamber. He asked for objections.

And then, hearing none, he banged his gavel and announced, "The Cartagena Protocol is accepted."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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