BIOSAFETY: Summary in New York Times
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The New York Times on the web
February 25, 1999
U.S. and Allies Block Treaty on Genetically Altered Goods
By ANDREW POLLACK
CARTAGENA, Colombia -- Attempts to forge the world's first global treaty
to regulate trade in genetically modified products failed Wednesday
morning when the United States and five other big agricultural exporters
rejected a proposal that had the support of the rest of the roughly 130
The treaty would have required that exporters of genetically altered
plants, seeds or other organisms obtain approval in advance from the
importing nation. The talks broke down over the question of whether this
requirement would also apply to agricultural commodities like wheat and
Proponents of the treaty, especially European nations, have resisted
genetically modified products, worried that not enough is known about the
possible effects on human health and the environment. But Washington and
its allies have argued that such regulations would entangle the world's
food trade in red tape.
Some 25 percent to 45 percent of major crops grown in the United States
are genetically modified, and American negotiators feared the proposal
could block or stall more than $50 billion in annual farm exports.
Bleary-eyed delegates from many nations, who have been negotiating day and
night for more than a week, expressed fury at the United States, accusing
it of intransigence and of putting the interests of its world-leading
farming and biotechnology industries above the environment.
"It's five nations against the world," said Joseph M. Goto, the delegate
from Zimbabwe, although Washington and its allies actually total six.
Those in agreement with the United States are Canada, Australia, Chile,
Argentina and Uruguay. "There could be no greater injustice than that,"
he said. The United States, he added, "is holding the world at ransom."
The delegates agreed to suspend the talks and resume them no later than
May 2000. The United States had urged this, saying there were still too
many unresolved issues to allow a consensus to be achieved by the
deadline, which was Tuesday. In the meantime, individual countries,
particularly in Europe, will continue to limit the introduction of
genetically engineered agricultural products, including food.
"It would be much better to get a sound instrument a year hence than to
get a flawed instrument today," said Rafe Pomerance, deputy assistant
secretary of state for environment and development. But delegates from
some other nations feared the process would now lose momentum.
Even without a treaty, countries can limit the import of genetically
engineered seeds or foods under their own law, subject to challenge under
world trading rules. Some countries, particularly in Europe, are doing
this. The treaty was mainly meant to help developing countries, which now
lack the expertise and the legislation to regulate biotechnology.
The United States has often taken a stance different from much of the rest
of the world on trade and environmental matters. It has not ratified the
Convention on Biological Diversity reached at the Earth Summit in Rio de
Janeiro in 1992 because some senators fear that American interests would
be jeopardized. The current talks on the so-called Biosafety Protocol are
an outgrowth of the biodiversity treaty.
The Biosafety Protocol would require exporters of genetically modified
organisms, such as seeds into which new traits had been added by
gene-splicing, to obtain prior approval from the importing country. Such
regulations are intended to allow countries to reduce the ecological risks
from introducing genetically altered plants, animals and microorganisms
into the environment.
Some scientists worry, for instance, that a gene conferring insect
resistance or drought tolerance on a crop could spread to weedy relatives
of that crop through cross-pollination, creating superweeds.
The main sticking point in the biosafety negotiations was whether the
requirement for advance approval by the importing nation should apply to
genetically altered agricultural commodities meant for eating or
processing, as opposed to planting.
Washington and its allies argued that such a requirement would not protect
biodiversity because commodities like corn and soy beans do not enter the
environment. Developing nations and the European Union argued that
commodities should be included because they have seeds that can be
Some developing nations even wanted the treaty to cover products made from
genetic engineering, such as cornflakes made from modified corn, or blue
jeans made from altered cotton, but this was dropped from the final draft.
Another unresolved point of dispute was Washington's position that World
Trade Organization rules should take precedence over the Biosafety
Protocol, to prevent other nations from using biosafety as an excuse to
erect trade barriers. The developing nations and Europe wanted the
biosafety protocol to be equal to WTO rules or take precedence over them.
Michael Williams, a spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program,
said this was the first environmental treaty he could remember in at least
20 years in which an agreement was not reached by the self-imposed
But officials here said the big stakes involved for industry made this
matter particularly difficult. "It's the first time that you have really
possibly a legally binding instrument dealing with trade and the
environment at the same time," said Veit Koester, a Danish environmental
official who chaired the working group that drew up the draft of the treaty.
It perhaps complicated things that the industry involved was
biotechnology, in which the United States holds a firm lead. There have
been a rising number of disputes in recent years between developing and
developed nations over the control of genetic resources, the raw material
for biotechnology, which some analysts predict will be to the next century
what oil and metal were to this one.
The United States in one sense was in a strong negotiating position
because it did not want a treaty as badly as the developing nations and
therefore had less reason to compromise. Indeed, three years ago
Washington opposed starting the biosafety negotiations, and many people at
this meeting thought its real intention was to torpedo the treaty.
"The last two years of negotiation have been a constant attempt to delay,
not negotiate, block," said Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, a
Malaysia-based group working on environmental and development issues.
"They've always said, 'No, No, No,' and they delayed and they diluted,"
Still, the United States could have been isolated. But it strengthened
its hand by aligning with Canada, Australia and three agricultural
exporters from the developing world: Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.
Without the support of such major exporters, any protocol would have been
"We were just too important, too big and maybe too thoughtful to be
ignored," Pomerance, the American negotiator, said.
He said Washington did make compromises. But he added: "There were two
compromises we were not prepared to make. One is to tie up trade in the
world's food supply. The second is to allow this regime, without a lot of
deliberation, to undermine the WTO trading regime."
Both the U.S. government and the biotechnology industry would have
something to gain from a treaty, were it not too onerous. A treaty could
have helped assuage public fears about biotechnology, which are much
greater elsewhere in the world than in the United States. And having a
unified global regulatory scheme would be easier for companies than having
each nation adopt its own rules.
The European Union has extensive regulations restricting the planting of
seeds as well as the importing of food that has been genetically altered.
Individual countries have enacted their own patchwork of rules.
"We would like to see a little more international harmonization of the
regulatory framework," said Willy De Greef, head of regulatory and
government affairs for Novartis Seeds AG, a division of the big Swiss
pharmaceutical company. "It creates a level playing field and clarity."
But the food and biotechnology industries and the U.S. government argued
that genetic engineering has not been shown to be a big threat to
biodiversity, especially compared with the destruction of tropical forests
to create farmland. They also said that environmental groups and
developing nations were trying to expand the treaty to deal with human
health and the social and economic effects of biotechnology.
"They are trying to get this protocol to develop issues that are really
important but not part of the protocol," said Joyce Groote, a spokeswoman
for Canada's biotechnology industry.
Environmental groups have complained in the last few days that the
protocol had been watered down to the point of near insignificance. But
in the end, some said that even the weakened treaty would have been better
"The environment's the loser, always," said Beth Burrows, president of the
Edmonds Institute, a nonprofit organization in Edmonds, Wash., which deals
with biosafety issues. "There was no moral high ground here," she added.
"There was no scientific high ground here. It was just cheap power
-| Hartmut Meyer
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