NEW SCIENTIST ISSUE 15 JANUARY 2000
Against the grain
FOCUS The poorest nations are refusing to let the US set the agenda when it comes to genetically modified crops. Could they pull off a remarkable coup?
IN TWO week's time, a David and Goliath style diplomatic battle is set to resume in Montreal when Africa takes on the US in the latest skirmish in the war over genetically modified food. The fight is over the US's plans to weaken a proposed UN treaty on the safety of GM technology. The venue is the relatively level playing field of a UN meeting. And what's more, the EU is sympathetic to the cause, which leaves the US with few allies beyond Canada and Latin America. While the world's media has focused almost exclusively on the controversy over GM foods in Europe,talks on what is known as the biosafety protocol have been grinding on almost unnoticed for five years. This protocol is part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The convention has three main requirements: that parties conserve biological diversity, that they use biological resources sustainably and that they share any royalties from drugs from medicinal plants between the pharmaceuticals company that developed the drug and the indigenous people who discovered the plant. The biosafety protocol is intended to be a legally binding treaty that protects wildlife from being harmed by the increasing use of biotechnology in agriculture. It could mean, for example, that an exporter would be obliged to convince an importing country that a GM export was environmentally safe before the product could be cleared for entry. But the concept ran into controversy almost as soon as talks began. From the start the US has opposed a legally binding protocol in favour of a loose set of guidelines. Since the US is the world's biggest exporter of GM seeds, it viewed such a protocol as a barrier to free trade. It has always argued that GM organisms are safe because there is no evidence to suggest they harm the environment or human health. The poorer nations take a more or less opposite position: GM organisms should be considered potentially harmful unless proven innocent. At a meeting in 1995, a deal was struck to end the stalemate. The US agreed to talks on a legally binding treaty, so long as the treaty was restricted to regulating the international transport of "living" GM organisms and did not include products such as seeds, food or animal feed. But somewhere in the intervening five years, poor countries changed their minds and began to insist that the treaty include GM products, too. Senior diplomats believe that the US will have to take this opposition very seriously. First, the group of 36 African countries signed up to the biodiversity convention demanded that the World Trade Organization should not be allowed to interfere with the biosafety protocol if it
comes into conflict with free trade agreements. There were further demands: that the protocol should be extended to regulate the use of GM organisms in laboratories, that exporters be liable for any damage caused by accidents and, perhaps most controversially of all, that risk assessments on GM products take into account the impact on the lives of indigenous peoples and on indigenous crops.
The poorer countries had always been uneasy about the US position. But they had lacked a country, or group of countries, to lead them. Now Africa has started to galvanise opposition to the US. The current battle is at once fascinating and perplexing. Africa has much to lose by taking on the US when GM crops are supposed to be
the key to future food production. Two recent British reports by groups of leading scientists-one from the Royal Society, the other from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics-have argued that GM technology holds the key to feeding hungry nations. Scientists and farmers in the US are among the most experienced in the world, so shouldn't Africa be tapping into their expertise? Similarly, Africa could be risking the wrath of the US in other areas of foreign policy. For example, the US's support is vital in the quest for debt relief and for the release of cash from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But these issues don't seem to bother the leader of the Africa group at the talks. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher-known everywhere as Tewolde-is the general manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia. With the help of environmental groups in developed countries, Tewolde has built consensus among the African nations and has kept them together in the face of considerable opposition from within and without Africa. For Tewolde, the biosafety protocol encompasses more than environmental protection. For him, it is about unshackling Africa from its colonial legacy and allowing it to become economically and politically independent of foreign countries. It is about an African revival, no less. "Africa is no longer being taken for granted, being walked over, being disregarded as a bystander in international action that seriously affects the lives of its people," Tewolde says. He insists that, like the vast majority of people from the poor nations, he is not against GM technology at all, but that he wants it to develop in an environment where the technology can be monitored and regulated, and where the potential for mishaps is minimised. "We are not an anti-GM coalition," Tewolde stresses. But this is not how it appears to other leading scientists from the developing world, such as Calestous Juma of Harvard University, the founder of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi. Juma, along with perhaps the majority of scientists in Africa, believes the continent must not be left out of the biotech revolution. And he says that many senior scientists, even ministries of science, complain about not being consulted on their country's position on the biosafety protocol.
If Tewolde's alliance with environmentalists succeeds in delaying the growth of GM agriculture in the South, it will not be the first time that a technology has been blocked because of the concerns of richer nations. In the 1960s and 1970s, the automation of production in developing countries during was set back by arguments that it would be a threat to jobs as well as to indigenous ways. As for the biosafety protocol, Juma and others say that GM products should be tested in controlled settings in African countries rather than simply excluded. These tests could be carried out in parallel with the talks. There are precedents for this. Both the Montreal Protocol and the more recent Kyoto Protocol were agreed after a long period of tough and sometimes acrimonious discussions had produced a scientific
consensus: that chlorofluorocarbons were depleting ozone and that fossil fuels were a cause of global warming.
But Tewolde is not alone in rejecting any idea of suspending the talks until the science is better understood. One senior UN diplomat says a biosafety protocol gives the world a rare chance to regulate a technology while it is still in relative infancy, before any negative effects have become apparent-especially if GM plants turn out to have
a detrimental and irreversible effect on indigenous crops and wildlife.
So, what will happen at Montreal? Most observers believe the gulf between the two sides is simply too wide for agreement to be reached at this meeting, despite the rise in worldwide public awareness of GM issues culminating in the protests at the world trade talks in Seattle last November.
The chair of the Montreal meeting, Juan Mayr Maldonaldo, Colombia's environment minister, has proposed a compromise under which the biosafety protocol would have the same status as trade agreements. However, agreement is more likely at the following meeting in Nairobi in May.
In any event, African countries have already planned for the possibility that the talks might collapse. Tewolde has convinced all 53 member states of the Organisation of African Unity to introduce biosafety legislation, which he has helped to draft. Whether a relatively weak organisation like the OAU can actually make this happen remains to be seen. Whatever happens at the Montreal or Nairobi meetings, the GM wars have highlighted a crucial shift. In a world where the fates of nations are increasingly interwoven in complex and often unpredictable ways, the numerically superior poor nations now insist on being major players. David may be about to turn into Goliath.
Author: Ehsan Masood
(Reproduction by kind permission)