BIOSAFETY: US Joins Corporate Greedies to Undermine BioSafety Treaty
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U.S. 'Observers' Lobby Against Trade
Curbs on Biotechnology
Accord Would Be First to Target Genetically Engineered
By Rick Weiss and Justin Gillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 13, 1999; Page A04
The U.S. government and scores of corporations are scrambling to prevent a
proposed international accord from sharply restricting the global flow of
hundreds of billions of dollars worth of genetically engineered products,
ranging from cotton seeds to soft drinks.
The intense lobbying effort will climax next week as negotiators from more
than 170 countries convene in Colombia to draw up final language on the
pact, which would be the world's first accord to regulate the spread of
genetically manipulated organisms. Depending on how the agreement is
worded, it could promote or restrict the burgeoning biotechnology industry
Despite years of preparatory negotiations, however, philosophical rifts
loom between the handful of countries ready and eager to ship genetically
engineered products around the world and the many other countries that
remain wary of the biotechnology revolution.
Environmental groups see the proposed agreement as their first opportunity
to set ecological standards for trade in gene-altered crops, livestock and
other products. Yet many American companies -- along with the governments
of the United States, Canada, Australia and others -- are alarmed about
draft language they say could undermine the global economy and severely
disrupt world trade.
Former president Jimmy Carter and others have warned that if a badly
worded agreement goes through, grain could rot on docks, regulators could
freeze shipments of vaccines and other vital drugs, and trade in products
as mundane as corn oil and paper could slow to a snail's pace.
"If applied broadly, this could affect an enormous amount of trade," said
Rafe Pomerance, a deputy assistant secretary of state and one of several
U.S. observers attending the talks in the coastal city of Cartegena.
But diplomats from several other countries contend the greater risk is that
unregulated trade in gene-altered seeds, microbes, plants or animals will
seriously harm the environment and human health. They say scenarios of
stymied world trade amount to scaremongering by governments and commercial
interests that are opposed to tighter control over the growing global
marketplace in genes.
"Genetic pollution is considerably more dangerous than oil spills. You
can't just go out there and put a boom around it and put it back in," said
Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in
American hopes that the accord will ultimately favor less stringent trade
rules were weakened Thursday as the European Parliament passed new
restrictions on the importation and use of genetically engineered seeds and
organisms. Several of the new provisions, including a demand that exporters
take on legal liability for environment-damaging genetic accidents, run
directly counter to U.S. positions. And although the legislation must be
passed by the European Council of Ministers before it becomes law, passage
by the parliament was seen by some as a strong signal of support for
countries pushing for more regulation at Cartegena.
No country has more to lose from overly strict regulation than the United
States. It is the world leader in biotechnology, making and exporting a
wide variety of products whose manufacture depends in some way on organisms
that have been genetically altered, including the glue in many cardboards,
the corn sweetener in soft drinks, much of the insulin that keeps diabetics
healthy, many of the vaccines that protect children from deadly ailments
and thousands of other products.
Lately, however, concerns have grown about the potential ecological, social
and economic effects of world commerce in engineered seeds, organisms and
biotech products. Although there has been little public controversy in the
United States, genetic engineering has become highly controversial in many
European and developing countries.
Some fear that engineered microbes or plants will disrupt local ecologies
and undermine traditional farming practices. Others have focused on
perceived, albeit unproven, health threats from eating genetically
engineered grains or cereals. A third concern is that important economic
sectors in some developing countries could be undermined by scientists'
ability to grow rare food ingredients or flavorings in the laboratory.
The "biosafety protocol" being negotiated in Cartegena is an outgrowth of a
treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity, which emerged from
the June 1992 Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. The diversity agreement,
now ratified by 174 nations, calls for protecting the variety of plants and
animals found in the wild. Ecologists have recognized that diversity, which
is under grave threat from development and other human pressures, is one of
Earth's most valuable treasures.
The 1992 pact called for "the conservation of biological diversity, the
sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the
benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources."
At the time the treaty was approved, nations agreed to hold further
discussion on the potential threat that genetic manipulation might pose to
biological diversity. They agreed to work toward a biosafety protocol that
would set out procedures for the safe transfer, handling and international
trade of biotechnology products that might have an impact on biodiversity.
This week's meeting is the sixth and last scheduled negotiating session
held during the past four years. And with high-ranking officials from
scores of countries due to arrive in Cartegena a week from now to sign a
finished agreement, there is tremendous pressure to achieve consensus.
That will take a lot of work. Several veteran negotiators of international
treaties said they could not recall an instance when so many widely
divergent views were still under discussion so close to deadline.
At the core of the various disagreements is the lack of a simple definition
of "biodiversity." The term clearly refers to the ecological balance of
microbes, plants and animals in nature. But are human beings and their
health part of a country's biological diversity? What about a country's
economy and culture?
A broader definition, promoted in particular by a bloc of African countries
and some Asian and European nations, could lead to a protocol that
regulates not only trade in living, engineered organisms but also food and
other commodities for human or animal consumption -- such as corn meal made
from gene-altered corn -- or even genetically engineered cotton fibers
destined to be made into clothing.
By contrast, the United States and some other nations want the protocol to
apply narrowly to living, genetically engineered seeds and organisms that
could multiply and spread in the environment.
"This agreement is supposed to be about the protection of biodiversity,"
observer Pomerance said. "If you start to expand the mandates of the
protocol, you can end up with something that is completely out of hand."
Pharmaceutical companies and public health officials express concern, for
instance, that an overly broad accord could interfere with the
international transport of medicines and vaccines, many of which are now
made from genetically engineered organisms. Such products are designed to
kill disease-causing microbes, which, strictly speaking, amounts to an
alteration of a nation's biodiversity.
"I don't think most people think of polio virus as an endangered species,"
said Gillian Woollett, associate vice president for biologics and
biotechnology at the Pharmaceutical Researchers and Manufacturers of
America, an industry trade group. Yet the protocol could actually promote
polio worldwide, she said, unless medicines and vaccines are explicitly
excluded from the accord.
Unfortunately for the United States, the many U.S. government and industry
representatives traveling to Cartegena have no official standing in the
weeklong talks because the U.S. Senate never ratified the Convention on
Biological Diversity. President Clinton signed the treaty in 1993. But
lingering U.S. concerns have held up Senate approval.
That means that although the United States would have to follow any trade
rules that participating countries impose, U.S. representatives can only
"observe" the negotiations and try to influence them informally. Recently,
for example, several companies including Monsanto Corp., a major U.S.
agricultural biotechnology company, enlisted former United Nations
ambassador Andrew Young to help soften the views of negotiators from
African countries who have been seeking restrictive rules.
Environmental groups in developed countries, meanwhile, have allied
themselves with diplomats from developing nations suspicious of
"The U.S. has in the past been able to throw its weight around on
biotechnology issues, but they seem to realize now they can't stop this
completely," said Michael Hansen, a research associate at the Consumer
Policy Institute in Yonkers, N.Y. "So a lot will turn on how strong the
African nations decide to stay on these issues."
Among the most contentious outstanding issues:
Paperwork requirements. The United States says it's willing to have
companies secure permission in advance from recipient countries before
releasing any living, genetically engineered seeds or organisms into those
countries' environments. But it says such paperwork should not be required
for subsequent shipments, as many countries have demanded. And it opposes
notification requirements for nonliving biotechnology products, such as
gene-altered cotton fibers or corn sweetener, many of which are already
pervasive in the global marketplace. "You'd have to have a huge bureaucracy
to sign off on these shipments," Pomerance said.
Liability. Many developing countries support a provision to compensate a
country if its biodiversity were harmed by another country's reckless
exportation of genetically engineered organisms. The United States says
existing liability laws are adequate.
Socioeconomic considerations. In question is whether a country may restrict
importation of engineered products not on strict scientific grounds, but
because of potential harm to that country's culture or economy. U.S.
delegates say no. Others, including the European Parliament, say yes.
Trade with nonparties. Some countries have proposed that signers of the
final accord should agree not to trade with countries that don't sign. That
would deal a devastating blow to the U.S. economy, but it would be such an
unprecedented hurdle to international trade that few people expect it to
As pre-conference deliberations got underway Thursday in Colombia,
representatives from the United States and several
biotechnology companies began a final push to convince opposing forces that
trade restrictions would ultimately harm everyone.
"Biotechnology offers many of these countries the best possible technical
solutions to many of their problems," said Val Giddings, vice president for
food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization in
Washington. "A lot of these countries don't realize that they're playing a
game that doesn't work to their benefit."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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"If you work to undermine power, whether by political analysis or moral
critique, you are "reviled, imprisoned, driven into the desert."
--- Noam Chomsky
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