GENTECH archive



   Tuesday February 16 7:36 PM ET
Genetic Engineering Talks His Snag

   By FRANK BAJAK Associated Press Writer 
   BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) - U.N.-sponsored talks on regulating trade in
   genetically modified organisms - from pest-resistant food crops to
   pharmaceuticals - were in knots Tuesday over developing countries'
   insistence they be allowed to restrict imports and be compensated for
   any environmental damage.
   It was unclear whether an international treaty, an outgrowth of the
   1992 Earth Summit in Brazil, could be achieved in this weeks'
   negotiations attended by more than 130 nations in the Caribbean city
   of Cartagena.
   ``It's rare that you come into a negotiation at this stage with so
   many major issues of disagreement,'' said Rafe Pomerance, the U.S.
   deputy assistant secretary of state for environment at the talks.
   A draft of the Biosafety Protocol - which had more than 600 disputed
   passages - is supposed to be defined by Friday and signed next Tuesday
   before it is ratified by signatories.
   Developing nations fear genetically engineered crops could have
   devastating effects on their rich biological diversity, cultural
   traditions and more rudimentary agriculture.
   ``Our knowledge of these things is too scanty. Until proven not
   dangerous, they must be presumed dangerous,'' Tewolde Gebre Egziabher,
   Ethiopia's chief environmental official, said of the new strains of
   plants that scientists have created by tinkering with DNA, the genetic
   building blocks of life.
   Although widely accepted and approved in the United States,
   biogenetically modified crops have won less acceptance in Europe,
   where several countries, including Austria and Luxembourg, have banned
   specific biogenetic crops fearing potentially catastrophic
   environmental consequences.
   Egziabher, who characterized the talks as ``deadlocked,'' said he
   spoke for most developing nations spanning Africa, Latin America and
   including China in demanding that the protocol:
   -Grant individual countries the right to selectively ban or restrict
   imports of biologically engineered organisms and their byproducts or
   -Make producers of such organisms legally liable for any damages.
   -Force biotech manufacturers to provide early warning to countries
   whose agricultural output would be adversely affected.
   Egziabher said Ethiopia would, for example, want to be informed
   immediately if a new strain of genetically engineered coffee were to
   be developed that could cut into sales of its leading export crop.
   ``Many agricultural commodities are being replaced through genetic
   engineering,'' said Egziabher.
   Vanilla, long a chief income source for the Indian Ocean nations of
   Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, was now being made in vats in
   California, he said.
   The United States only has observer status at the talks because it is
   not among the 174 countries that have ratified the Biodiversity
   Convention produced at the 1992 Earth Summit.
   But it is still a heavyweight.
   Backed by allies including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Uruguay,
   Chile and Argentina, the United States is seeking to protect a rapidly
   growing multibillion-dollar industry whose proponents insist
   bioengineering is a safe, proven and environmentally sound technology
   with myriad benefits.
   ``Few products have received the scrutiny, the close attention and
   scientific review that these products are receiving,'' said Karil
   Kochenderfer of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a U.S. industry
   The head of the Chilean delegation, Roland Stein, said Tuesday that
   never in the two decades of international trade in genetically
   modified organisms has biodiversity been endangered.
   Biotechnology industry groups accuse environmentalists like Greenpeace
   of using unfounded scare tactics based on unproven claims of
   biogenetic hazards to impede the spread of products that reduce the
   use of pesticides and raise crop yields dramatically.
   ``Biotechnology is helping to transform agriculture,'' said Val
   Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology
   Industry Organization. In the United States last year, 25 percent of
   the corn crop, 38 percent of soy beans and 45 percent of cotton were
   genetically modified, said Giddings.
   Within a decade, predicted Kochenderfer, ``95 percent of all U.S.
   crops will probably be biotech.''
   Pomerance, the U.S. diplomat, said Washington believes that any
   protocol with overburdensome requirements would be perceived as
   impeding trade - and might never be ratified by enough countries to
   take effect.

** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material
is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest
in receiving the included information for research and educational
purposes. **