Europe and developing countries claimed a partial victory over the United States on Friday when a conference of 80 nations agreed to new rules for the labeling of genetically modified commodity shipments despite U.S. objections.
The United States expressed frustration, saying other countries rushed into decisions that might disrupt international trade.
“Our biggest disappointment is that countries are moving down a path away from practical steps very quickly in a direction that could have consequences,” said Deborah Malac, chief of the U.S. State Department’s Biotechnology Trade Policy Division.
Government officials wrapped up the conference on biotech safety with what they hoped would be a major step toward enforcing global trade rules for biologically altered foods by late 2005.
The European-led bloc successfully lobbied for more detailed information to be contained in identification papers that accompany bio-engineered shipments — a move the United States, the world’s largest exporter of biologically altered food, argued was unnecessary.
Countries also agreed to set up an expert group to negotiate an international liability regime that lets people seek compensation from biotech exporters if transgenic organisms contaminate their environment or harm their health.
Environmentalists criticized the compromise for not making other details compulsory as well, such as how the products had been altered.
“These requirements are not sufficient to protect the environment and the food chain from contamination,” said Greenpeace spokeswoman Doreen Stabinsky. “But they are an important first step that governments should implement immediately.”
Aim to protect biodiversity
The measures form the basis for implementing the U.N. Cartagena Protocol, which aims to protect biological diversity by ensuring exporters give enough information about gene-altered products so that countries can choose whether to reject them.
Scientists say biotech plants, which have foreign genes implanted for traits such as increased pest resistance, can cross unpredictably with conventional ones to form new species.
Washington was allowed to voice its opinions — but not participate in making decisions — because it has not signed the protocol, which 86 countries and the European Union have ratified.
Most governments are expected to set up new facilities to evaluate genetically altered shipments and specialized customs offices to enforce the protocol’s requirements by September 2005.
The United States tussled repeatedly with Europe, Africa and many developing nations about key implementation issues throughout five days of talks in Kuala Lumpur. It was the first time countries formally discussed the protocol since it came into force last September.
Progress was glacial, but delegates managed to hammer out crucial compromises by Friday morning, especially in the most contentious issue of how much details should be included on labels and identification papers for transgenic shipments.
Officials agreed that documents should contain the scientific name and characteristics of genetically modified ingredients.
The U.S. delegation, which argued that specific labeling is unnecessary and would hinder trade, complained about the outcome.
“We came here in a cooperative spirit to find a rational way forward,” Malac said. “We believe we are still very much at risk of running into countries implementing laws and regulations that might create a lot of unpredictability.”
But Christoph Bail, head of Global Biodiversity in the European Environment Commission, said the European Union was satisfied, especially by winning commitment from countries that they will try to comply with protocol obligations.
“We are pleased, we have achieved our objectives,” Bail said. “The message that has been sent to the U.S. is that we are firm to make this protocol work. The message is, please do not try to undermine the protocol.”
Mexico and tortillas
Tortillas provided one example of the tension between the United States and other countries.
Mexico, the birthplace of maize, faces competing pressures of deep trade ties with the United States and Canada, both strong promoters of the use of biotech crops, versus the will of a large peasant population whose culture and religious beliefs drive them to protect their dozens of native varieties.
Mexico struck a deal with its two northern partners last October, setting rules for trilateral trade in both gene-modified and conventional grain varieties, including maize.
The agreement requires shippers to identify cargoes known to contain biotech crops but absolves them of responsibility for unknowingly shipping biotech-contaminated loads and defines cargoes containing less than five percent of biotech seeds as not having any.
Critics of that deal claim it sets a precedent that undermines efforts to set stricter global rules.
“Basically the grain traders and companies are saying: ’We don’t know, it’s not our responsibility’,” said Silvia Ribeiro, Mexican campaigner with the ETC group, which works on ecological and cultural conservation issues.
“It’s like legalizing contamination,” she said, adding biotech maize had already turned up on plots all over Mexico despite being banned, risking crosses with local varieties.
Mexico’s lead negotiator, Victor Villalobos, said 30 percent of the 5.6 million tons of feed corn his country imported each year was gene-modified, supplying meal for chicken and pig rearers as well as the edible oil and corn starch industry.
He said U.S. imports of strains developed by the likes of Monsanto cost $72 per ton versus Mexico’s $120.
“We cannot compete with the United States for these kinds of corn. If we tell them to send us GM-free corn, it will cost us in the order of 40 or 70 percent more,” he said, defending the deal.
Background on the Cartagena Biodiversity protocol is online at www.biodiv.org.