Nations Agree On Safety Rules for Biotech
MONTREAL, Jan. 29 -- Delegates from more than 130 nations today adopted the first global treaty regulating trade in genetically modified products, setting up an international framework for the increasingly heated and divisive debate about foods made with biotechnology.
The biosafety treaty, forged after a week of intense negotiations that often pitted the United States against almost everyone else, allows countries to bar imports of genetically altered seeds, microbes, animals and crops that they deem a threat to their environment.
But virtually all of the proposed provisions that Washington had feared would cripple world food trade and endanger billions of dollars a year in farm exports were watered down or eliminated. This led some European delegates and environmentalists to complain that the accord had been unduly weakened.
Whether the treaty heightens consumer concern or helps ease it, the debate surrounding genetically altered food is sure to continue. European consumers, in particular, are wary of risks to human health and the environment and have become increasingly militant in their rejection of food that contains genetically modified grains or soybeans.
About half the soybeans and one-third of the corn grown in the United States last year contained foreign genes making the crops resistant to herbicides or insects, and European resistance has cost American farmers millions of dollars in lost exports.
Some of the European intensity in the debate stems from recent food scares unrelated to genetic engineering, like mad cow disease in Britain and dioxin-tainted chickens in Belgium, where there was also a vast recall by Coca-Cola after the parents of four ill teenagers laid the blame on the soft drink.
Some also has arisen from European dislike of what is often called American culinary imperialism and meant as a criticism of vast food companies like the McDonald's fast-food chain, which has seen protests and vandalism at some of its European locations over the use of hormone-treated beef.
Concern about genetically altered food has also risen in the United States, where companies that develop genetically modified crops, like Monsanto, have found themselves increasing on the defensive. The Food and Drug Administration held public hearings on the such food recently and some members of Congress are calling for food with genetically modified ingredients to be so labeled.
Despite the continuing controversy, when the biosafety protocol was finally approved at around 5 a.m., weary delegates from all sides stood up and applauded and hailed it as a significant achievement.
"By reaching an agreement today, I hope we have taken an important step toward depolarizing the debate about biotechnology," said Frank E. Loy, United States under secretary of state for global affairs. "Conversely, failure to reach an agreement today would have exacerbated tensions over this issue."
Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, an environmental group based in Malaysia, said that the treaty had "a lot of holes." But she added, "I think it's historic in the sense that international law is recognizing that G.M.O.'s are distinct and have to be regulated separately." G.M.O. stands for genetically modified organism.
Biotechnology company executives said the new treaty could actually help the industry by countering a perception that biotechnology is not adequately regulated. "I think it will give some members of the public a stronger feeling that there is appropriate amounts of oversight," said Steven J. Daugherty, director of government and industry relations at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the huge seed company.
But no one thinks the controversy will go away. Indeed, the treaty could make consumers even more aware of the issue.
Delegates said the treaty represented a rare recent success in balancing environmental protection with free trade, interests that are often difficult to reconcile.
Talks on these topics broke down at the World Trade Organization meeting last year in Seattle, and huge protests were held by environmentalists, foes of biotechnology and others.
The biosafety talks themselves broke down a year ago in Cartagena, Colombia, when the United States and a handful of other big agricultural exporters blocked a treaty agreed to by virtually all the other countries.
Here in Montreal, demonstrations were small. And the atmosphere in the negotiating halls was far more positive than in Cartagena.
Still, early this morning, it appeared that history might repeat itself. The United States and Canada refused to agree to a requirement --supported by virtually all the other countries -- that shipments of genetically altered commodities like corn or soybeans identify the specific variety. The two countries said such a requirement would be unworkable, requiring different strains that are now intermingled to be segregated and tracked from field to dock.
A tense standoff ensued for hours. Finally, frowning and grumbling, the Europeans backed down, and the treaty requires stating only that the shipment "may contain" genetically modified organisms.
Industry officials said genetically modified crops would not have to be segregated.
The new treaty will be known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and will go into effect after being ratified by 50 countries.
The protocol is an outgrowth of the Convention on Biological Diversity forged in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Because the United States never ratified the convention, it cannot become a party to the biosafety protocol. But American industry will have to comply with the rules when exporting to countries that are parties. And federal officials here said the government would honor the treaty.
The new biosafety protocol is mainly concerned with protecting the environment. For instance, genes that make crops herbicide resistant could spread by pollination to weedy relatives, creating superweeds. Or fish given genes to make them grow faster might out-compete others for food or mates.
It also contain some vague language saying that risks to human health should be taken into account.
The treaty also does not address whether food containing genetically altered ingredients, like corn flakes made with bio-engineered corn, should be labeled as such on store shelves. It deals only with labeling commodities like wheat or corn during international shipments.
The key requirement of the treaty is that exporters must obtain permission in advance from the importing country before the first shipment of a particular "living modified organism" meant for release into the environment, like seeds, microbes or fish to be put in a river.
But advance notice and permission will not be required for exports of agricultural commodities meant for eating or processing rather than for release into the environment, which Washington said would have tied up food trade in red tape.
According to the compromise in the treaty, when a crop is approved for commercial use in one country, that country must send information about it to a central clearinghouse. Other countries can then decide whether to prohibit the imports.
There are other deletions from the protocol that American industry cheered but that some environmentalists said weakened the accord. The treaty, for instance, does not apply to human pharmaceuticals.
Environmentalists, as well as delegates from Europe and developing countries, said the most significant achievement was inclusion in the treaty of perhaps the strongest formulation to date of the "precautionary principle." This states that a nation can take action to protect itself – in this case by barring import of a genetically modified organism -- even if there is a lack of scientific certainty that it would be dangerous.