US: GM Pact Should Not Supersede WTO

Reuters -- Jan 15 2000 10:13AM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) �

Efforts to craft an international Biosafety Protocol later this month in Montreal should focus on protecting biological diversity without unduly restricting trade in genetically modified crops, U.S. and industry officials said. The protocol should also make clear that it does not change the rights and obligations of countries under other international agreements, such as the World Trade Organization, the officials said. WTO rules prevent countries from blocking food imports unless there is a compelling scientific reason. The United States has argued that prevents restrictions on genetically modified crops because U.S. regulators have determined them to be safe. Negotiations under the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity officially open on Monday, January 24. However, informal meetings begin next Thursday and are expected to continue up to the start of the conference.


The outcome of the negotiations has enormous consequence for the United States, which is the world's largest producer of genetically modified crops. The new varieties account for more than half of U.S. soybeans and one-third of U.S. corn crops. European consumer opposition to genetically modified crops sets the stage for a major conflict in Montreal. Developing countries also have concerns about liability if imported genetically modified organisms (GMOs) damage their biodiversity.

Because the U.S. Senate has not ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, the United States does not officially have a seat at biosafety talks. It has worked through the Miami Group of countries, which also includes Canada, Argentina, Australia, Uruguay and Chile. Countries first agreed to develop a Biosafety Protocol in late 1995. They have met three times previously in Montreal and planned to bring their work to a close a year ago in Cartagena, Colombia. That effort fell apart over many of the same issues that are expected to divide the upcoming meeting.


U.S. industry officials complain negotiators have gone into areas that countries originally agreed not to enter.

``The Europeans, in particular, want to try to use the protocol to override the WTO or at least set the protocol on par with the WTO. That's something we agreed at the beginning we wouldn't do,'' said Val Giddings, vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization. But environmentalists say the United States is being unreasonable with its demand for a ``savings clause'' that would subordinate th Biosafety Protocol to WTO rules.

``Countries should have the right to say no or put conditions on the imports of GMOs,'' said Sarah Newport, of Friends of the Earth. That includes bulk commodities for food, feed and processing. ``We don't think there should be any loopholes or exemptions,'' she said.

A key issue in Montreal will be the establishment of Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) procedures for trade in ``living genetically modified organisms'' (LMOs) The purpose of the AIAs would be to inform countries in advance of shipments of LMOs which may pose a potential threat to their plant and animal life. The United States and the Miami Group argue a distinction should be made between commodities destined for feed and food uses and LMOs which would be released into environment, such as planting seeds and live fish.

Going into Montreal, U.S. officials see considerable difficulties reaching a deal. Disagreements remain on at least half of the proposed text of the protocol, one U.S. aide said.

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