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- Date: Wed, 17 Feb 1999 10:17:43 -0800 (PST)
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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
``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
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
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