Setting Rules on Biotechnology Trade NY Times
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February 15, 1999
Setting Rules on Biotechnology Trade
By ANDREW POLLACK
Delegates from about 170 nations are meeting this week to
complete an international
biotechnology safety treaty that the United States government
and many American companies fear
could greatly restrict exports of food and other products made
using genetic engineering.
The Biosafety Protocol, which is being negotiated in Cartagena,
Colombia, would require that
exports of genetically modified organisms be approved in advance by
the importing country.
The negotiations are an outgrowth of the Convention on Biological
Diversity drawn up at the Earth
Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. They are scheduled because of
concern that the release of
genetically modified plants and animals into the environment.
In genetically altering an organism, genes from one species may be
spliced into another to confer
certain desirable traits, like resistance to blights or pests. One
concern is that these enhanced
organisms could overtake and displace native species, reducing the
variety of the gene pool.
But Washington and many American companies say such new rules could
impede tens of billions of
dollars of annual exports of seeds, grains and perhaps even
products like breakfast cereal made from
genetically modified corn, or blue jeans made using genetically
"It could create enormous disruption to existing patterns of
international trade with no benefits to the
environment or human health," said Val Giddings, vice president for
food and agriculture at the
Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group. "Some of the
proposals would put in place a
draconian regime that we have never seen before except for highly
toxic and hazardous substances."
Washington thinks it is appropriate to have a treaty covering
genetically modified seeds, said Rafe
Pomerance, deputy assistant secretary of state for environment and
development and head of the
American delegation in Cartagena.
What worries the government and American companies is that some
nations are proposing that the
new rules cover not only seeds, plants and animals but also
genetically altered corn, soy beans and
other agricultural commodities. Some proposals would go even
further and apply the treaty to
products made using genetic engineering, like pharmaceuticals,
cookies made from genetically altered
grain, or even paper containing corn starch made from genetically
"The protocol is being written to cover living modified organisms
which have the potential to
threaten the environment," said Steven Daugherty, director of
government and industry relations at
Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the world's largest seed company.
"It's hard to see how corn starch fits
The United States exports more than $50 billion of agricultural
products each year. And an increasing
share of the major crops are genetically engineered. Genetically
engineered crops accounted for 25
percent of the corn acreage planted in the United States last year,
38 percent of the soy bean acreage
and 45 percent of the cotton acreage, according to the
Biotechnology Industry Organization.
But many other nations, including those in Europe, have resisted
genetically engineered seeds and
foods, worried that not enough is known about the possible effects
on human health and the
environment. Indeed, one argument American industry makes against
the Biosafety Protocol is that it
is not needed because countries already can and do restrict
Kristin Dawkins, a director at the Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy, a nonprofit organization
based in Minneapolis that deals with farming policy, said it is
legitimate for the treaty to apply to
food because there could be risks to animals and humans from the
ingestion of genetically modified
food. Possible dangers could include the spread of toxins,
allergies or resistance to antibiotics.
In a letter sent to Vice President Al Gore last week, her group and
other farm, environmental and
consumer groups from around the world urged the United States to
"demonstrate flexibility" in the
negotiations and not act like "a brutish lobbyist for corporate
It is still not clear how the treaty will turn out, or even if an
agreement will be reached. There are
deep disagreements not only about which products will be covered
but also on fundamental questions
like whether products made with genetic engineering should be
labeled as such, whether creators of
such products should be liable for damages, and how any conflict
between the protocol and the rules
of the World Trade Organization would be resolved.
The United States will take part in the negotiations but will not
be able to vote because it never
ratified the 1992 biological diversity treaty, which was opposed by
many Senate Republicans. "This
has constrained our ability to work in these negotiations," said
Pomerance of the State Department.
Washington's position in the negotiations is generally supported by
other big agricultural exporters
like Canada, Australia and Argentina, according to industry and
environmental group officials who
have been following the talks, which began a few years ago.
Ethiopia leads a group of African nations, many of them in the
tropics with abundant biodiversity,
which are pushing for the widest scope and most stringent rules.
The European Union is somewhere
in the middle.
The nations that signed the 1992 biological diversity treaty are
scheduled to meet next Monday and
Tuesday in Cartagena to formally approve the language of the new
treaty that will be drawn up by a
working group this week. The treaty would take effect after a
certain, as yet undetermined, number of
nations ratify it.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company