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Let battle commence New Scientist 5 Feb 2000

The fight over genetically modified organisms has only just begun: Montreal

GOVERNMENTS last weekend won the right under international law to ban imports of genetically modified organisms. Or so they hope. But concessions won by major grain-exporting nations such as the US in the final hours of negotiations in Montreal may create a scientific and legal minefield. At 5 am last Saturday, 130 nations agreed on the Biosafety Protocol, the first major treaty to control international trade in GMOs. The treaty allows countries to halt imports of GMOs that they fear "may have an adverse effect" on biological diversity or human health.

'We live in a world in which scientific certainty is not available'

It covers food, animal feed and seeds, but not pharmaceuticals. Until now, the World Trade Organization has required safety bans to be backed by "sufficient scientific evidence". But to environmentalists' delight, the meeting adopted the "precautionary principle", allowing countries can react to scientific uncertainty with a ban. Until the very last moment the "Miami Group" of major grain exporting nationsthe US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Uruguay and Chile-condemned this as back-door trade protectionism. But they finally gave in. "We live in a world in which scientific certainty is not available," admitted the US chief negotiator, undersecretary Frank Loy.

Under the agreement, countries must monitor GMOs through their life cycle before releasing them into-the environment and must cooperate on research into their potential impacts. Despite the euphoria at the agreement, which took five years to negotiate, there are still large areas of uncertainty. The talks failed to agree on the labelling of products containing GMOS. A holding clause says shipments should carry a label saying they may contain" GMOS. Detailed labelling rules-on, for instance, which GMOs a particluar shipment contains, and their potential effects-wiu be decided in a few years. This raises questions about how governments will decide on the risks the products might pose in the meantime. Farmers and traders won't have to segregate products containing GMOS. The US argued that segregation would cost billions of dollars because GM varieties make up half of the nation's soybean and a third of its maize crops. But observers from organisations as diverse as Greenpeace and the Swiss-based seed company Novartis agree that the demands of consumers and retailers are already nudging grain traders towards segregation. A dispute between the US and the European Union over whether the protocol should take precedence over the free trade rules of the World Trade Organization was finally fudged. Margot Wallstrbm, the EU environment commissioner, says the VVTO will rule in any dispute over an import ban, but will have to take the protocol into account when doing so. Fred Pearce

Feb 2000 New Zealand environmentalists and politicians are hailing an international agreement allowing countries to restrict imports of genetically modified crops. The deal, reached in Montreal on Saturday after meetings involving 130 countries at a United Nations summit, is the biggest setback suffered by the beleaguered genetically modified food industry. The Biosafety Protocol allows countries to ban imports of modified food without breaking international trade rules.

Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons said the pact paved the way for New Zealanders to make their own choices about genetic engineering. "This agreement puts environmental and health concerns on an equal footilig with free trade agreements.

'If New Zealanders decide they are not ready and willing to accept genetically engineered organisms, then no one will be able to force them on us." Biosecurity Minister Marian Hobbs said she was proud the Government had achieved its aims. "Virtually since the'Government took office we have been worldng on this biosafety protocol." The pact, surprisingly accepted when the United States climbed down after heated, all-night negotiations, allows countries to apply a .precautionary principle" and reject imports of modified foodstuffs if they are a safety risk.

Five years of negotiations went into the agreement. Talks collapsed last year after six big agricultural exporters including the US rejected the deal.

Discussion continued until near dawn when,the Americans agreed to sign, conceding that the agreement would, not unduly disrupt trade.

The protocol has comparable status to the World Trade Organisation but will not take effect until ratified by 50 countries.

It is open for official signing at the next meeting in Nairobi in May.

Countries can then ratify. Besides allowing the right to restrict imports, the protocol sets strict rules for trade in living organisms, such as seed, animals and microbes that have been genetically altered. Trade rules for food, animal feed and other products made from modified organisms are also stipulated in the agreement.


Impasse 11 Dec 1999

The world still can't agree on how to regulate biotech trade

RIOT police and protesters weren't the only adversaries fighting it out at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle last week. Inside the hall itself there was stony resistance to US-led proposals for the WTO to regulate trade in agricultural biotechnology. Other delegations, led by those from Europe, were adamant that they wanted the UN's Biosafety Protocol to regulate the introduction of genetically modified food, plants and animals. This protocol, drafted after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, advocates universal labelling of GM produce. It also says countries should be able to ban any GM material they consider a threat to the environment. But the "Miami group" of nations-the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile-objects to the current draft, due for revision in Montreal next month. The Miami group doesn't want trade in GM products strangled by environmental considerations, and so argues that the WTO should handle matters. In Seattle, the US and Canada proposed creating a "biotechnology working group", which would study the scope for regulating biotechnology through the WTO. Initially, the European Union's trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, seemed to accept the proposal. "Carefully controlled discussion on this issue in the WTO is justified," he announced. But the EU's member governments soon slapped him down. "Lamy went beyond his remit and trade ministers were very angry," says a spokesman for the British government. 'They had to rein him back in." In the end, the EU issued a strongly worded statement that effectively killed the US proposal: "We reject requests to deal with biotechnology exclusively on trade grounds. We reject any attempt to undermine the EU's right to regulate, and we reject any attempt to derail, divert or delay the biosafety talks." However, the EU did agree to the WTO forming a working party to conduct a "fact-finding" mission into biotechnology. The impasse in Seattle coincided with the announcement of plans to further consolidate the agribiotech industry into a handful of multinational companies. The Anglo-Swedish company AstraZeneca aims to combine its agrochemical and biotech operations with those of Switzerland's Novartis to create Syngenta. Syngenta, based in Basle, will be the world's largest agrochemicals company, commanding 24 per cent of the global market. The nearest competitor, Aventis of France, has 16 per cent, followed by Monsanto of the US with 13 per cent. Syngenta will also be the world's third largest supplier of seeds. Already, rumours are rife that the new company could be snapped up by one of its rivals. And if the purchaser were an American firm, it could further widen the rift between the enthusiastically pro-GM North American camp and the more cautious nations of Europe. Andy Coghlan