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BIOSAFETY: US biotech industry on biosafety protocol

mailinglist genet-news
February 12, 1999

BioWorld via NewsEdge Corporation : WASHINGTON - Starting this weekend, 
more than 160 nations will enter final negotiations on a Biosafety 
Protocol in Cartagena, Columbia, that could severely restrict the trade 
of a wide swath of products exported by U.S. manufacturers, including 
foodstuffs, textiles and pharmaceuticals.
With global trade opportunities hanging in the balance, the U.S. has no 
seat at the negotiating table. Nevertheless, a contingent of State 
Department officials and representatives from a number of potentially 
affected industries will make the trip to Cartagena, in an attempt to 
sway the voting delegations into adopting more trade friendly policies.
"For the key issues in this protocol, there are a number of proposals," 
said Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at the 
Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "And [although] most of those 
proposals are bad, a few may be palatable. We really don't know what will 
The protocol is a part of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, 
and was originally aimed at ensuring that genetically modified organisms 
(GMOs) do not overwhelm native organisms, inhibit their ecological niche 
and cause their extinction. In other words, the convention wanted to 
ensure that genetically modified seed crops capable of reproduction do 
not wreak havoc on native species of plants by "out-competing" them.

Negotiations Ongoing Since 1992
Negotiations on the protocol have been ongoing in some fashion since 
1992, but formally began in 1996. As the negotiations proceeded, some 
countries lobbied to expand the protocol to include all products that are 
derived from GMOs. This proposal risks putting in place an entirely new 
set of regulations that would require additional permits for any product 
that fits this description, including products such as recombinant 
insulin, garments and textiles made from genetically modified cotton, 
detergents using enzymes as cleaning agents, and a host of raw and 
processed food products.
Karil Kochenderfer, director of international trade and environmental 
affairs at the Grocery Manufactures of America, said cotton is "one of 
the crops where biotechnology has made the largest penetration. By 
expanding the scope of the treaty, [officials] have lost sight of the 
fact that biotechnology is an area where sound environmental policy and 
sound trade policy go hand in hand."
President Clinton has signed the Convention on Biodiversity, but Congress 
has not ratified it. In fact, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the 
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has never placed the item on the 
committee's agenda - in effect, tabling the treaty. As a result, the 
U.S., the country with the world's largest biotechnology industry, has no 
vote in the proceedings in Cartagena.
Instead, the U.S. must rely on nations with similar interests to ensure 
the protocol doesn't include all products derived from GMOs. Giddings 
said environmental groups opposed to biotechnology (such as Greenpeace) 
and several developing nations - India and Malaysia among them - have 
lobbied for strict regulations. They argue that little is known about the 
effects of releasing GMOs into the environment. In addition, some nations 
are proposing strict regulations in an effort to trigger technology 
Many members of the European Union, Australia and New Zealand are 
lobbying for a much narrower definition of products covered under the 
"The definition of the products covered under this treaty is critical, " 
Giddings said. "If the scope includes pharmaceuticals, we have a train 
wreck on our hands. If it is expanded beyond the original intent of the 
convention, we have serious problems with it."
Sara Radcliffe, research manager of biologics and biotechnology at the 
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said her 
group is lobbying to ensure the protocol doesn't include human 
pharmaceuticals or research materials.
The Biosafety Protocol could take several different turns. At its most 
innocuous, the protocol could simply ratify current biotechnology 
regulation methods, which are left to individual countries, and could 
ensure countries do not use those regulatory barriers to unfairly block 
trade. Or, the countries could elect a new regulatory regime - one that 
covers the totality of biotechnology, and places strict limits on 
transfers of products derived from GMOs.
Kochendorfer said that, usually in such negotiations, "people meet and 
meet and meet, and a consensus begins to build. This protocol seems to be 
building more and more dissonance. The outcome is really uncertain."
Giddings noted that the entire argument over the protocol has obscured a 
basic fact about biotechnology, which is that it serves to protect rather 
than hinder biodiversity.
"The greatest threat to biodiversity is not biotechnology," he said. 
"It's razing the rainforest to plant crops to feed an expanding 
population. What biotechnology offers is the opportunity to plant on 
existing agricultural land more-sustainable, higher-yielding crops." *
<<BioWorld -- 02/11/99>>
[Copyright 1999, American Health Consultants]

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