Talks on biotech food day in Montreal will see US isolatedBy ANDREW POLLACK
January 24, 2000
Nearly a year after the United States blocked a proposed global treaty to regulate trade in genetically modified products, delegates from more than 130 nations will resume negotiations today in Montreal in search of a breakthrough.
After months of international protest and concern about bioengineered food, Washington will be even more on the defensive.
Negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia, collapsed last February when the United States and five other big grain-exporting nations rejected a proposal supported by the other countries that would have required exporters of genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops to obtain permission in advance from the importing country.
Since then, public concern about possible health and ecological risks of foods made with biotechnology has intensified in Europe and spread to other countries.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration recently held three public hearings on the subject. Gerber and Heinz have said they would avoid genetically engineered ingredients in baby food, and Monsanto, the leader in biotech seeds, has been accused in a lawsuit of selling these seeds without adequately testing them, a charge the company denies.
The intensifying debate is expected to put pressure on Washington to make a deal in the new talks. "Hopefully there's been enough ferment in the U.S. that the U.S. is prepared to say, 'We need to get something in place,' " said Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that favors such a treaty.
Still, divisions remain deep, and it is unclear whether an agreement will be reached by Friday, the self-imposed deadline. Talks on biotechnology at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in December went nowhere amid wide disagreements and huge street protests. Demonstrations are planned in Montreal, where authorities say they do not expect the protests to cause the same havoc as in Seattle. Hundreds of people did hold a protest on Saturday, sponsored by Greenpeace.
Developing nations and those in Europe say the treaty, known as the Biosafety Protocol, is needed to allow countries to restrict the import of plants, seeds, animals and foods made with genetic engineering.
The United States, while not opposing a treaty in principle, says the proposals under discussion would entangle agricultural trade in red tape and endanger billions of dollars in American farm exports. The United States leads the world in biotechnology, and last year half of the American soybean crop and one-third of the corn had genes introduced to resist herbicides or insects.
American industry and government officials accuse Europe of wanting a treaty to help it erect trade barriers and to justify the restrictive stance it is already taking on genetically modified foods.
David Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and science and the chief United States negotiator, said, "We'll be coming to Montreal to negotiate and hoping to make a deal." He said that given the furor over genetically modified foods in Europe, "I'm worried that European leaders won't have the flexibility they need to take reasoned, centrist positions on this."
Christoph Bail, the lead negotiator for the European Union, said Europe does not need a treaty to restrict imports of biotech crops because it already has its own legislation. Rather, it favors a strong treaty to help developing nations. He said that Europe would be flexible and that he was "mildly optimistic" that an agreement could be reached.
With Europe and some individual countries now regulating biotech foods on their own, industry executives say they could actually benefit from a treaty -- providing it is not too onerous -- that would unify regulations around the world and assuage public concerns.
"We would be willing to put up with quite a bit of nonsense in return for predictability," said L. Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an American trade association.
But he added that proposed regulations look unworkable and are not spelled out in enough detail. "We're being told to jump off the Empire State Building and make your parachute on the way down," he said.
The biosafety talks are an outgrowth of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. Since the Senate never approved that convention, the United States will not be able to vote in Montreal and must rely on its allies -- Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile and Uruguay -- to speak for it in the formal meetings.
The rationale for the biosafety treaty was that genetically modified plants, animals or micro-organisms could displace or endanger native crops or microbes. But, much to the dismay of the biotech industry and Washington, the talks have moved well beyond species preservation.
The heart of the proposed Biosafety Protocol -- and the biggest sticking point in the negotiations -- is a requirement that exporters of "living modified organisms" notify the importing nation in advance, giving that nation a chance to reject the shipment.
Washington contends that such a requirement is appropriate for bioengineered seeds, bacteria or animals that are released into the environment, but not for commodities like wheat and corn that are eaten or processed, since they are not released into the environment. Since genetically modified and unmodified grains are now often intermixed in shipments, such a requirement would cost billions of dollars, requiring crops to be tracked from the field to the docks, it says.
But Europe and the developing countries say that concerns about high costs are exaggerated and that agricultural commodities should be included because they contain seeds that can be planted or can escape into the environment.
Another sticking point is that Washington, worried that the biosafety rules will be a pretense for trade barriers, wants to make sure the treaty does not take precedence over World Trade Organization rules.
But the developing countries and Europe say Washington's proposed wording would subordinate the Biosafety Protocol to the World Trade Organization, which they do not want.
What is at stake in this argument is that under World Trade Organization rules, a nation must base a decision to bar imports of a product on scientific evidence. But Europe and the developing countries want the biosafety treaty to allow such decisions to be made on the basis of reasonable concerns, even in the absence of hard evidence.
Some compromises have been put forward, but all sides agree they have not gone far enough to bridge the gaps. Washington has offered to disseminate information on the Internet as soon as genetically modified crops are approved by federal regulators, giving other countries time to decide whether they will allow imports.
American and European officials do agree that the treaty should not cover the labeling on store shelves of biotech foods. That is a matter for domestic legislation, they say. What is at issue in Montreal is the labeling on shipments of genetically modified crops and seeds.