Multinational Monitor

MAR 1999
VOL 20 No. 3


Unsafe In Any Seed: U.S.Obstructionism Defeats Adoption of An International Biotechnology Safety Agreement
by Kristin Dawkins

The Nuclear Boys Return to Ukraine: The European Scheme to "Compensate" for the Chernobyl Shutdown
by Tony Wesolowski

Corporate Soldiers: The U.S. Government Privatizes the Use of Force
by Daniel Burton-Rose and Wayne Madsen

Domesticating Markets: A Social Justice Perspective on the Debate Over a New Global Financial Architecture
by Walden Bello


Toxic Deception
an interview with Dan Fagin


Behind the Lines

Corporate Schoolyard Bullies

The Front
Election Rigging in Japan - Greenlining, Whitewashing? - Exxon: Mean and Stupid

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Unsafe In Any Seed: U.S. Obstructionism Defeats Adoption of An International Biotechnology Safety Agreement

by Kristin Dawkins

CARTAGENA, COLOMBIA - With virtually all parties proclaiming that "no protocol is better than a bad protocol," global negotiations to regulate trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) collapsed in failure here on February 23.

Absent a global treaty, countries remain free to regulate, or not regulate, GMOs within their borders as they see fit. Adoption of a strong international "biosafety protocol" would have established minimal requirements for the safe handling and use of GMOs, and helped provide poorer countries with technical and financial resources to follow them.

An international agreement would also help those nations choosing to regulate GMOs more stringently to resist challenges at the World Trade Organization (WTO) from those governments that consider biosafety regulations to be barriers to trade.

The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been ratified by more than 150 countries (but not the United States, although this has not affected U.S. influence in the negotiations), requires the ratifying countries to work towards an agreement to ensure the safe handling, use and transfer of GMOs that "may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity."

From the perspective of the agrichemical and pharmaceutical companies that like to call themselves the "life industry," however, a strong global biosafety protocol would get in the way of business.

"The environmental ministers participating in these negotiations are experts in matters of the environment, but they have not, so far, considered the broader perspectives of food safety, caring for the medical needs of their people, the economic benefits of global trade," said Dr. Val Giddings of the U.S.-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO).

"In some cases," he continued, "negotiators may be representing their own self interests at the detriment of their national interests and goals, at times without the knowledge of their own national leaders."

At Cartagena, BIO worked as part of the "Global Industry Coalition," which claimed to represent more than 2,200 firms from more than 130 countries including "a variety of industrial sectors including plant and animal agriculture, food production, human and animal health care and the environment."

Industry, allied with six major food and feed exporting countries that are heavily involved in industrialized agriculture, exercised a decisive influence at the negotiations.

Joined together as the "Miami Group," the United States, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay blocked the consensus agreement for a strong protocol reached by approximately 125 other countries.

These other countries were organized into two other negotiating blocs: the European Union and the "Like-Minded Group," led by Ethiopia and representing all the bio-diverse tropical countries and most of the rest of the world. After nine days in February of excruciating round-the-clock talks, in which the Europeans and the Like-Minded Group often supported each other, the conference acknowledged its failure to find a workable compromise. Sometime before May 2000, the parties are supposed to try again.

Biosafety for Whom?

Currently, the vast majority of commercial trade in GMOs involves genetically engineered corn, beans and other food crops intended for either human or animal consumption.

The two most widely used are "Roundup-Ready" and "Bt" crops. Roundup-Ready crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, an effective herbicide, so that nothing but the crop survives after spraying. (Roundup is Monsanto's brand-name for glyphosate.) However, when bees or the wind transfer the pollen from the Roundup-Ready field plants to wild plants, "super-weeds" resistant to herbicides can spring up.

Bacillis Thuringiensis (Bt) is a naturally-occurring bacteria that is toxic to insects and invaluable to organic farmers. In fields where the Bt toxin has been engineered into the DNA of every cell of every corn or cotton plant, pests die from munching on the crop. However, in some of these fields, "super-insects" have been found to have evolved resistance to any form of Bt and, in some cases, the Bt has had a toxic effect on beneficial ladybugs and bees feeding on the engineered crop.

Critics argue that genetically engineering Bt into crops will quickly spur widespread insect resistance, and render Bt spray useless to organic farmers, who rely on modest uses of it to help control insects.

Activists deem the potentially harmful spread of altered DNA into an ecosystem to be "genetic pollution." What the environmental ministers of the mega-diverse countries probably fear most, however, is "genetic erosion" -- the loss of diversity in a gene pool. The loss can occur as a result of genetic pollution, but it can also occur when a society fails to protect wild areas and the practices of traditional peoples and local farming communities who work with non-commercial plant varieties.

Just as in a human family, where inter-marriage can in a short time breed unhealthy offspring, the world's crop plants need to be revitalized every once in a while with the genes of wild relatives in order to remain vigorous. The wild relatives of these crops grow in what are called "centers of origin" -- for corn it is Mexico and other countries of meso-America, for potatoes it is Peru and other Andean countries, for coffee it is Ethiopia and elsewhere.

If genetically modified varieties of these plants, or of the microbes that sustain their soils, are released in a center of origin, it is quite possible that the ecological jolt could jeopardize the precious "original" gene pool. So too, when urbanization and industrial agriculture take over lands where wild and non-commercial varieties thrive, the planet's ecological health and humanity's collective food security are at risk.

Protections against this wide array of risks to rural ecosystems are encapsulated in the term "biosafety." To guard against these risks, almost everyone agrees that some degree of testing for biosafety, particularly in centers of origin, is needed. Virtually all parties also agree that, in general, GMOs should be exported only with the "Advance Informed Agreement" (AIA) of the importing country -- at least the first time a novel GMO is shipped to a new destination. The draft biosafety protocol is process oriented, spelling out how exporters and importers notify each other and what other steps "may" or "shall" be taken to ensure that the AIA requirement is satisfied.

The toughest sticking point in Cartagena was whether international biosafety regulations should address foods. This was the single most contentious issue in the whole negotiation.

The Miami Group urged that all GMOs destined for food or feed or processing be exempted from the protocol's procedures. The Miami Group spokespersons claim that by the time genetically engineered food and feed reach the market, they have been tested and proven safe. Furthermore, they claim that since these products are intended for consumption rather than dispersion in fields, they really do not have any environmental impact.

Their overriding concern is that biosafety rules might interfere with the grain trade. One U.S. delegate pointed out that U.S. grain shipments already mix GMOs with non-GMOs. "Co-mingling means there is no way to know if it's a first shipment," she said, "so the AIA would have to be applied for all shipments." Late one night, another blurted out in frustration that the future of a multi-billion-dollar industry is at stake!

The Like-Minded Group offered a different perspective on these issues. "In the Third World," explained an Ethiopian delegate, "our trucks are not secure. Grain spills easily through the cracks and holes and then grows along the roadside. And our farmers don't know or care about the 'intended use' of an exporter. If they see a grain, they want to grow it. That's how we got our agricultural biodiversity in the first place."

The Like-Minded Group noted that testing in the United States or anywhere else does not guarantee that a GMO can be safely released in a distinct ecosystem. On a case-by-case basis, at least for the first shipment to a specific destination, these delegates insist that all GMOs must be subject to the protocol's procedures.

Rather than disregarding food safety concerns as Dr. Giddings of BIO alleged, it turned out, the Like-Minded Group simply had a dramatically different perspective than industry.

The Global Economics of Biotech

Similarly, the Like-Minded countries did not ignore issues related to "the medical needs of their people" or "the economic benefits of global trade." They just approached these matters from a radically different vantage point than industry.

With regard to medical needs, it was the Miami Group that successfully deleted key clauses concerning human health. The draft protocol no longer requires the biosafety procedures to be applied to GMOs used to manufacture pharmaceuticals for humans. Similarly, the draft no longer affirms the need to phase out the use of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in the production of GMOs. Critics believe the use of these genes is hastening the rate at which antibiotics lose their efficacy in modern medicine. The Miami Group also wanted to delete from the protocol a more general phrase in which signatories note they are "taking also into account the risk to human health" but, in this case, the Like-Minded Group won.

In this single area, explained Melinda Kimble, the acting assistant secretary of state who headed the U.S. delegation, the United States was "showing some flexibility." Otherwise, she stated, "the U.S. position has not evolved but been reinforced. ... The Miami Group came with very clear instructions. ... We want to accommodate [the Like-Minded Group] but it's hard to move much."

As for the economic effects of biotech, the developing countries of the Like-Minded Group are acutely aware of the potential impacts of genetic engineering on their economies and trade balances.

The Ecuadoran government worried that multinational corporations may undertake GMO cultivation in its country "because of certain comparative advantages, such as good soil, cheap land and labor costs, etc." Indigenous and other communities which rely on wild biodiversity for subsistence may find their sustenance threatened, perhaps by genetic pollution or simply by land pressure. Ecuador urged that "the implementation of rules on biosafety should not be considered as barriers to trade, consistent with the rules of the World Trade Organization."

One major concern is that genetically engineered products will displace traditional Third World commodity exports. Venezuela and Thailand urged that countries preparing to rely on genetically engineered goods to displace imports should give a seven-year advanced warning to the exporting country, so that the exporter would have the opportunity to diversify production.

These concerns notwithstanding, the Miami Group insisted that a provision requiring that "Parties shall ensure" that socio-economic impacts are adequately considered be diluted to a mere "Parties ... may take into account" socio-economic "implications." And the European Union's attempt to take a stand regarding the WTO -- specifically, that biosafety should take precedence over trade -- was rejected outright by the Miami Group.

At least three other major disagreements prevented a successful negotiation. The Miami Group disagreed with the suggestion that countries have a right to exercise "the precautionary principle," erring on the side of caution when evaluating the potential risks of a relatively untested GMO. It disagreed with the Like-Minded Group's challenge to exporters that they back up their safety claims with some kind of insurance via an international liability regime. And it disagreed with European demands for labels on GMO products.

The Miami Group succeeded in having all of these proposals jettisoned from the protocol.

"We're willing to consider a precautionary approach, [but] the United States opposes provisions on liability, not only here but in every multilateral environmental agreement," said Kimble. "The United States is not going to assume liability for products developed in the United States."

To justify the point, she raised a series of rhetorical questions: "Who should be liable? The farmer? The broker? The trader? Who will enforce it? ... Should the U.S. government force its private sector to segregate [GMOs from non-GMOs] because the European consumer prefers it? We would have to get legislation and appropriations authority from Congress."

Insisting that "the market" should somehow make determinations on these issues, not the protocol, she concluded, "In the United States, we don't perceive a risk yet. As soon as we do, this will follow through."

A Compromise for No One

Mid-way through the negotiations, with no progress on the key issues, Chairman Viet Koester of Denmark issued his own compromise text.

The compromise rejected the Like-Minded Group's insistence that that the protocol must include GMOs for food, feed and processing in its scope and the European Union demand that there be no legal priority given to the WTO over the protocol. The Chair's text was also marred by a wide variety of exclusions -- human foods and pharmaceuticals, animal feed, GMOs destined for greenhouses and laboratories or other "contained use" facilities, or those intended for processing of any kind were all to be excluded from the scope of the protocol. The editors of the independent daily newsletter the Earth Negotiations Bulletin reported that delegates had dubbed the Chair's text the "Biosafety Protocol for Animal Vaccines" because virtually every other type of GMO was excluded from the scope of its procedural application.

But the Global Industry Coalition was not satisfied with the Chair's draft, either. For industry, the requirement that documentation identifying the GMO accompany each GMO shipment (of products covered by the protocol) was "onerous" and "and may conflict with the need for confidential business information in early stage product development." Industry also objected to the Chair's proposal that the exporters bear legal responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

Negotiation Collapse

Day after day, most of the delegates from the 130 or so countries attending waited in the hallways for occasional reports as the negotiators for the Miami Group, the European Union and Like-Minded Group, toiling behind closed doors until 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning, emerged for a bathroom break or a quick consultation in a corner. There was never a breakthrough.

Nonetheless, on the last day of the official negotiations, Mr. Koester gave the plenary about five seconds to respond to his request for comments on his proposed compromise. Hearing no one, he banged his gavel and announced it was "provisionally approved." The room was stunned. Then, government after government stated their "reservations," and it became clear that the "provisionally approved" draft would not become finally approved.

When Voester turned over the gavel to Colombia's environmental minister, Juan Mayr, who would preside for the remaining two days -- intended for the formal adoption of the protocol -- there was a surprising mood swing.

Mayr promptly dispensed with the requisite formalities and proposed the negotiations begin again, but this time in an open, democratic fashion.

In the manner of a town meeting, he facilitated the nomination of 10 spokespersons representing a wider range of interests than the three blocs that had dominated until then. And he declared that any government wishing to be present during the next 48 hours or so of talks could sit in, if they would please channel their input through one of the 10 designated spokespersons.

Despite the good will and renewed strength generated by the Colombian's commitment to a more open negotiation, no one's position changed. Whether something will change between now and May 2000 remains to be seen.

Hopefully, any changes that do materialize will be due to a shift in the political winds, not to a major biosafety accident.

Kristin Dawkins is a senior fellow at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.


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