EU says GM safety agreement an 'absolute priority'

BRUSSELS, Jan 17 (Reuters) �


The European Union's top environmental official said on Monday it was an "absolute priority" to conclude a long-delayed deal to protect biological diversity and regulate trade in genetically modified crops.

But EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom warned the bloc's

Negotiating partners, including the United States, that the EU would insist on tight rules for trade in bulk commodities based on food safety concerns.

Representatives from 134 countries are due to start talks in Montreal in Canada on January 24 to try again to reach agreement on the United Nations-sponsored Biosafety Protocol.

"The international community must demonstrate that it takes the concerns of the citizens on health safety seriously," Wallstrom told a news briefing.

"The Commission believes the conclusion of the protocol is an absolute priority," she said. "The negotiations are going to be very difficult ...we'll need a lot of goodwill to come to a final agreement."

A conference last February in Cartagena, Colombia, broke up without agreement after the U.S.-led "Miami Group," which includes Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and Chile, refused to accept EU demands for labelling of GM bulk commodities.

Europe wants precise labelling for GM crops and foods derived from them and has been slower approving new GM products than the United States because of consumer concerns about food safety.

Washington has said the talks should concentrate on protecting biodiversity and must not be complicated by wider negotiations on issues of food safety.


Wallstrom said the protocol should be based on the so-called "precautionary principle," under which the EU says it can keep products off its market if it has evidence, but not necessarily proof, that they present a danger to health. She said the Commission, the EU's executive, planned to publish its definition of this principle soon. The EU also wants a "prior notification procedure" to guarantee that all signatories have notice in advance of any shipments involving GM products. The United States says that bulk commodity shipments need not be covered by such a clause. Wallstrom also said the protocol

"must not be subordinated to the World Trade Organisation," reflecting European fears that Washington might put free trade concerns above health issues. Christophe Bail, head of the Commission's unit in charge of environment and development cooperation, said the protocol and the WTO should be "mutually supportive" if a dispute arose. Both Wallstrom and Bail were keen to show the Commission championing the rights of developing countries.

"The protocol is primarily about helping developing countries," Bail said, noting that they do not have adequate mechanisms to deal with problem.

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited.

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