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BIOSAFETY: Summary in Guardian (London)

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By Jeremy Lennard in Bogota
Guardian (London)
Tuesday February 23, 1999

A treaty among 170 countries to ensure safe trade in genetically modified 
organisms has been sabotaged by the United States, which believes its 
business interests are threatened.

The US has refused to allow commodities like soya bean and corn, which 
account for 90 per cent of the world trade in GMOs, to be included in the 
negotiations. If they were included they would need to be clearly 
labelled when being traded between countries, something the Americans are 
anxious to avoid because it could lead to their products being boycotted.

The US action came only 24 hours before a deadline for the biosafety 
negotiations in Cartagena to be completed. The US refused to bow to 
pressure from the vast majority of the 170 countries present, who called 
for a cautious approach to the international trade.

It is likely that a protocol will still be signed, but after working 
groups failed last week to produce a consensus on a paper for the final 
debates, the treaty is likely to favour free trade concerns over 
environmental prudence, and play into the hands of biotech companies such 
as the US giants Monsanto and Dow.

'The US is willing to threaten biodiversity in the name of short-term 
profits. It wants a biotrade, not a biosafety, protocol,' said 
Greenpeace's political adviser, Louise Gale. 'Over the past two years the 
US has flooded the world market with unregulated and unlabelled 
gentically-engineered [GE] grain. It is clear it wants to continue this 
practice and will sabotage any efforts to set international rules for GE 

Although the US has no formal delegation in Cartagena, it sent a powerful 
lobby group of biotech company representatives. They have worked with a 
handful of other countries to ride roughshod over the concerns of the 
European Union and the developing world, which fears it will become a 
unwitting testing ground for biotechnology.

Last week the British delegation broke ranks with its EU colleagues when 
it helped to write a set of proposals strongly in favour of the US 
position, and which will form the watered-down basis of any treaty signed 

The proposals essentially reduce any potential agreement to govern the 
trade in genetically engineered seed, and offer few or no restrictions on 
the trade in genetically engineered grain to be used in food, and other 
commodities containing GMOs. If adopted, the paper will also sideline 
liability concerns for another four years while freeing up trade.

Unless the majority of the countries can force their agenda at the 
eleventh-hour, the right of countries to say no to the import of 
genetically modified organisms will not be subject to global agreement, 
except for seeds. Instead it will be reduced to a decision by individual 
states, which can be contested before the World Trade Organisation.

At the same time, the rights of individual countries to insist that 
genetically engineered grain, for example, be segregated from 
conventional grain, and that commodities containing genetically modified 
organisms be labelled, has been fudged.

The implications of a weak protocol for importer countries and the vast 
majority of the developing world were demonstrated at the weekend with 
the arrival of a US grain-carrier at the nearby Caribbean port of Santa 
Marta. Its cargo would be unaffected by the current proposed wording of 
the protocol.

The cargo ship Abydos docked on Saturday to unload 17,000 tons of maize, 
which even by the biotechnology industry's estimates could contain up to 
3,500 tons of genetically engineered grain. Colombian law makes no 
provision for the presence of GE grain in the shipment, and the country 
becomes a passive recipient without the right of prior consultation.     

-| Hartmut Meyer
-| Co-ordinator
-| The European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering
-| Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51
-| D - 37083 Goettingen
-| Germany
-| phone: #49-551-7700027
-| fax  : #49-551-7701672
-| email:

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