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BIOSAFETY: Canada played the bad guy for the US

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Ottawa accused of scuttling biotech deal Canada helped broker agreement 
regulating imports of genetically altered foods in 1992
The Ottawa Citizen

FRI FEB.26,1999
ANNE McILROY, Parliamentary Bureau

The Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa Environmentalists say Canada helped torpedo an international 
agreement that would have regulated shipments of genetically altered food 
and crops such as potatoes that produce their own pesticide. The talks in 
Cartagena, Colombia, ended Wednesday without an agreement on the 
multibillion-dollar trade in genetically modified products. These foods 
are grown and eaten in Canada and the United States, but are far more 
controversial in the United Kingdom, Europe and the developing world. 
"Canada played the heavy," said Benny Haerlin, spokesman for Greenpeace 
International. Canada was part of a group of grain-exporting countries, 
including the United States, Australia, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile, 
that rejected a compromise and insisted on a narrowly focused treaty that 
would have little impact on the industry. The group insisted the treaty 
should apply only to seeds and not to commodities, and opposed 
requirements to label genetically altered products. Labels are required 
in many European countries, although in Canada and the United States 
consumers have no way of knowing whether the bread or potatoes they are 
consuming contain genes for herbicides or pesticides.

The agreement on biosafety was the first protocol the nations of the 
world attempted to negotiate under the international treaty on protecting 
plant and animal species that was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit in 
Brazil. Then-prime-minister Brian Mulroney has been credited with helping 
broker a compromise on the convention, and as a result, Canada was the 
first country to sign it. The United States did not sign the treaty, so 
could not even have signed the protocol being negotiated in Colombia had 
an agreement been reached. Canada acted as a mouthpiece for the 
Americans, said Mr. Haerlin, as well as pushing its own hard-line views. 
Canadian environmentalists were appalled. "Canada played the lead in 
trying to sink this thing, event though we brokered the convention at 
Rio. That is why it is so embarrassing," said Mark Winfield, research 
director at the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy. But 
Paul Haddow, a member of the Canadian delegation, said the proposed 
agreement was too broad, too complicated and had too many important trade 
implications. "It would have been an environmental mistake for us to have 
signed that agreement," he said. But negotiations, which were supposed to 
end this week, will continue. Canada is anxious to help developing 
countries implement a regulatory approach to genetically modified crops 
that is similar to the one in place here, Mr. Haddow said. The issue of 
genetically engineered crops is related to protecting plant species, 
because there is fear they will breed with, and replace, native varieties 
in some countries.

There has been conflict between the Environment Department and trade 
officials over Canada's position. In an interview before the negotiations 
began, a Canadian official explained that as a major exporter of 
genetically altered canola, Canada couldn't agree to sign something that 
would make it far more difficult to sell the product. Officials also say 
there is little connection between labelling genetically modified food 
products and protecting plant species. Earlier this month, the first 
evidence of health problems connected with genetically modified foods 
emerged in the United Kingdom, where there is a growing scandal over 
products that have not been properly t differentiate between engineered 
and ``natural'' canola, for example, so the mix can vary drastically 
shipment to shipment. The main genetically engineered crops in Canada are 
potatoes, corn, soy and canola. About 30 to 50 percent of Canada's 
$3-billion canola crop is genetically engineered, principally for 
resistance to herbicides and pesticides. About 25 percent of the nation's 
soy and corn crop is genetically modified. The United States has a 
particular interest in the matter. The country holds a clear 
international lead in biotechnology, and some countries have voiced 
suspicions about the link between the Clinton administration and 
biotechnology giant Monsanto Co., which is owned by a key supporter of 
the president. The Biosafety Protocol also would have made it easier for 
countries to ban shipments of genetically engineered crops out of 
concerns that they might harm ecological diversity. Environmentalists 
fear such super-crops could cause eco-disasters. They say 
cross-pollination of such crops with wild plants could lead to 
''super-weeds'' that are near impossible to control. Current World Trade 
Organization rules allow a country to bar agricultural shipments only if 
they stand to harm people or wildlife. Possible harm to an ecological 
system is not grounds to ban a crop, said Mark Winfield, director of 
research at the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy. 
Since the U.S. has not ratified the convention that led to the Cartagena 
meeting, the superpower was not a voting member in the talks. Canada's 
action to end the conference has led to some observers alleging that it 
was a puppet of the Americans. ''We carried the ball for them,'' Mr. 
Winfield said.

-| 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
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