By Matt Crenson
The Associated Press
M O N T R E A L, Jan. 29 — After negotiations late into the night, delegates
reached an international agreement today on the trade of genetically modified
food and other products.
Just before dawn, Colombia’s environment minister Juan Mayr announced to
a conference hall full of delegates that the yearlong stalemate had ended.
“The adoption of this protocol represents a victory for the
environment,” Mayr said, fighting back tears. “But don’t forget that this
only represents the beginning. We have still before us a great challenge.”
The Biosafety Protocol to the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity provides
rules intended to protect the environment from damage by genetically modified
plants, animals and bacteria.
The protocol allows a country to ban imports of a genetically modified
product if it feels there is not enough scientific evidence showing the
product is safe. It also provides rules for the transport and labeling,
requiring that the words “may contain living modified organisms” appear on
all shipments of genetically altered commodities, such as corn and cotton.
Environmentalists Are Happy
“The text is good from our point of view—very good,” said Adrian Bebb, an
environmental activist with Friends of the Earth.
Environmentalists and a few scientific studies have raised concerns that
genetically modified organisms could wipe out native species, disrupt natural
cycles and cause other ecological damage.
The European Union and developing nations argued that countries should
be allowed to refuse imports of a genetically modified product if little is
known about its environmental effect.
But the United States and its partners disagreed, saying many of the
proposed rules would restrict trade.
U.S. negotiators said Saturday that they were satisfied with the final
“On balance we think this is an agreement that protects the environment
without disrupting world food trade,” said head U.S. delegate David Sandalow.
Negotiations stretched hours beyond Friday night’s deadline as delegates
struggled over the intricacies of the deal.
This Story Was Genetically Modified
In one of the main compromises, the United States and its supporters were
able to amend rules that would have required labels to give specific details
on what genetically modified materials are in a product.
Under the compromise, for two years after the protocol comes into
effect, labels must say only that a product may contain such materials,
without specifics. During those two years, negotiators will work out more
Negotiators also reached a compromise on the thorny issue of how the
protocol would relate to the World Trade Organization. After months of debate
over which treaty should prevail, it was finally decided that the two should
be “mutually supportive,” with a specific statement in the document
declaring that nothing in it is “intended to subordinate this Protocol to
other international agreements.”
Peter Hardstaff, a trade expert with the Royal Society for the
Protection of Birds, said that wording effectively leaves the relationship
between the two treaties to the WTO’s dispute resolution panel.
“This is continuing the muddle about trade versus international
environmental protection,” Hardstaff said.
Anti-GM Consensus Has Grown
Talks last February in Cartagena, Colombia, ended in disarray when the United
States and five other countries—Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile and
Uruguay—rejected a draft agreement favored by 125 other countries.
The situation has changed since then, with major U.S. food producers
such as Archer Daniels Midland, Gerber and the Iams pet food company either
demanding that genetically modified products be segregated or refusing to use
them altogether. Protests at the WTO talks in Seattle last month also suggest
that the American public has concerns about genetically altered food.
“In the year since Cartagena, it has become obvious that the position of
the (United States’) group is increasingly isolated,” said Philip Bereano, a
University of Washington professor who has been following the talks.
Genetically modified crops are already widespread. About 70 million
acres of genetically engineered plants were cultivated worldwide in 1999. In
the United States, genetically engineered varieties account for about 25
percent of corn and 40 percent of soybeans.
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