Canada hopeful on talks on gene-modified crops

OTTAWA, Jan 17 (Reuters)

Canadian officials said on Monday there was a chance the world's trading blocs could settle their deep differences at talks next week and forge a deal to protect biological diversity and regulate trade in genetically modified (GM) crops. Representatives from 134 countries start talks in Montreal next Monday in another bid to draw up a Biosafety Protocol, an effort which had stalled amid disagreements between the United States and its allies and the European Union (EU).

A conference last February in Cartagena, Colombia, ended in a deadlock after the U.S.-led "Miami Group", which includes Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and Chile, refused to accept EU demands for labeling of GM bulk commodities. But Canadian officials said they were confident of progress at the Montreal talks, if only because the participants had had more time to study the various proposals.

"So from that sense I think we do have probably some reasonable prospects of making significant progress, if not actually of getting it completed," a senior Canadian official told a briefing.

"I think it's having the chance to think about positions, to realize where other people are coming from, maybe also time to consider where you might have more flexibility, where you could come up with some compromise positions," he said.

Neither the Miami Group nor the EU are pretending the talks will be easy. The EU wants precise labeling for GM crops and foods derived from them and has been slower at approving new GM products than the United States because of widespread consumer concerns about food safety. The EU also says the protocol should allow it to keep products off its market if it has evidence -- but not necessarily proof � that they present a health risk. But Washington and others say the talks should concentrate on protecting biodiversity and must not be complicated by wider negotiations on issues of food safety.

"We want to make clear that people should be doing things for legitimate environmental reasons, protecting biodiversity, and (that decisions to block imports) are based on science-based risk assessment and not on just what public opinion might be at that moment," said the Canadian official.

The Miami Group wants to include a clause making clear the Biosafety Protocol does not take precedence over other international obligations, such as those under the World Trade Organization.

"There is concern that (the protocol) could be used to basically justify trade barriers," the official said. WTO rules prevent countries from blocking food imports unless there is a compelling scientific reason. The official said that although GM foods were a controversial topic, Canadian authorities were not worried that Montreal would see the same kinds of mass protests which overshadowed last month's WTO talks in Seattle.

"We don't see that on the horizon. We know there will be at least one demonstration scheduled for January 22 but we assume that will be carried off in a responsible fashion," he said.

"A lot of environmental groups are accredited observers (at the talks). It isn't as though they're being excluded."

Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited.

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