Treaty Nears on Gene-Altered Exports

Last February, negotiators from more than 130 countries met in Cartagena, Colombia, to thrash out rules of conduct for international trade in genetically engineered organisms. Unsuccessful, they returned home.

Is this corn genetically engineered? Although the grower knows, that information is generally lost once a commodity mixes with the neighbors’ yields. Bruce Fritz/USDA-ARS

Their stalemate persisted through 5 days of resumed negotiations in Montreal last week. Then, at 4:48 a.m. Saturday, the parties agreed to a compromise. This Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety will become a formal treaty 90 days following its ratification by at least 50 nations.

The protocol, intended to protect global biodiversity, requires that exporters notify importers when products contain what the accord calls living modified organisms, or LMOs. It requires a similar notification to countries through which the organisms will travel. Though most of last week’s debate centered around trade in seeds—such as corn modified to produce the bacteria-derived insecticide BT—the treaty will cover any genetically engineered live exports, whether algae, tomatoes (with seeds), cattle, or fruit trees.

Rules spelling out the grounds on which nations may refuse the modified organisms proved among the most contentious. They pitted the European Union against the United States, Canada, Australia, and three South American major exporters of soy and cereal. Last year, an estimated half of all U.S. soy and one-third of all U.S. corn carried modified traits.

Under a groundswell of public pressure, Europe has been balking at imports of genetically engineered food and seeds. As a consequence, some U.S. cereal and soy processors have begun paying farmers a premium for genetically unmodified crops, notes Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis.

Contested precautionary principle. To keep foreign markets open to genetically engineered products, the United States and its allies lobbied to maintain World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. The rules forbid import bans unless the products pose a demonstrated risk to health or the environment. This puts the onus on an importing nation to prove unacceptable risks.

The European Union, however, formally subscribes to what is called the precautionary principle, which allows policies such as an import ban when data suggest a risk but have yet to demonstrate harm. The Europeans fought to get this principle into the new protocol along with a statement that the protocol would supercede older accords, such as WTO’s.

What emerged is a muddy compromise, observes geneticist Doreen Stabinsky of California State University at Sacramento.

The protocol explicitly accepts the precautionary principle and states that “lack of scientific certainty”—owing to “insufficient” safety or toxicity data—shall not prevent nations from taking actions.

While this language shifts the onus to the exporter to prove products are safe, Stabinsky notes, the protocol’s preamble confuses the issue. It states that it will not change “rights and obligations of a [nation] under any existing international agreements,” such as WTO rules. Then, it adds that “the above [statement] is not intended to subordinate this protocol to other international agreements.”

“The overall outcome will be tremendously reassuring to the businesses involved and the farmers who grow  these products,” concludes Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C. “In the absolute worst case, this protocol and the WTO [rules] would be on a par. So, our rights and obligations under WTO are completely intact,” he says. The protocol also “provides the Europeans no basis for undermining trade,” he maintains.

“This means science-based risk assessments are required before a nation can restrict importation of biotech products—whether seeds for planting or commodities for food, feed, or processing,” says Susan Keith of the National Corn Growers Association in Washington, D.C.

Dawkins disagrees, noting that the Vienna Convention holds that multinational disputes should be resolved by relying on the newest or most specific laws. On both counts, she says, the Cartagena Protocol should win out over WTO rules.

Tempered labeling rules. A compromise over another potential deal breaker—how to label living modified organisms—disturbs geneticist Anne R. Kapuscinski of the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Most countries wanted them identified by the cultivar and its modification, such as production of BT or resistance to herbicides.

The major exporters, however, argued that once crops leave the field, modified and nonmodified forms are invariably commingled. Segregating commodities as they travel from the field to the dinner table would prove unduly cumbersome and expensive, exporting nations argued.

At the 11th hour, negotiators in Montreal decided that affected shipments could merely note that they “may contain LMOs” that are “not intended for intentional introduction into the environment.”

“This lack of specificity could greatly impair our ability to do risk assessments,” Kapuscinski argues. If future health or environmental problems surface, how will researchers trace which organism was responsible? She contends that the labeling compromise “greatly dilutes the information available to an importing nation and represents an important loss [to science].”

Major exemptions. Kapuscinski also worries about several significant types of genetically engineered organisms that the protocol ignores. For instance, it specifically exempts pharmaceuticals for people when other international agreements address those drugs. Yet, she notes, some of these drugs may be taking forms never anticipated in earlier agreements—for example, as components of bananas or potatoes engineered to serve as vaccines (SN: 3/7/98, p. 149: She fears that such products may threaten biodiversity.

She and Stabinsky are also troubled by another exemption. The protocol states that an importing nation would have to give its explicit consent before an exporter can send it living modified organisms—like seed corn—that would be introduced into the environment. However, any intended for food, feed, or processing can be shipped to a country even without its “advanced informed agreement.”

The problem here, Kapuscinski argues, “is that you are actually shipping seeds.” Not only may they spill on the ground during transit, but farmers in the importing nation may divert some for planting.

To Giddings, such concerns are exaggerated. The new protocol was crafted under the U.N.’s biodiversity secretariat, he points out. “And we know what causes threat to biodiversity,” he says. “It’s chain saws, bulldozers, dynamite, fishing, and things like that. It’s not substituting one variety for another in agricultural fields.”

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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