Protests at the Montreal Biosafety Conference Call for GE Ban

Protesters March Through Montreal

.c The Associated Press 1/22/00


MONTREAL (AP) - About 1,000 protesters marched through Montreal on Saturday,
warning delegates to a meeting on the trade of genetically engineered plants
and animals that toying with nature is risky.

The meeting, which begins Monday and runs through Friday, is to bring
together representatives from some 130 countries. Officials in Montreal have
expressed fears that it could be disrupted by the sort of violent protests
that accompanied World Trade Organization talks in Seattle last year.

But Saturday's demonstration was peaceful, and no arrests were reported.

``Life before profits!'' the protesters chanted after completing their
hourlong march in subzero temperatures. They waved placards reading ``We
will not be guinea pigs'' before returning indoors to listen to speakers
discuss the dangers of biotechnology.

At a news conference Friday, a protester threw a pie in the face of Joyce
Groote, the biotechnology industry's top lobbyist in Canada.

The negotiations are considered the final, make-or-break step in a process
begun in 1995 to draw up international standards to regulate the trade of
genetically modified food, pharmaceuticals and other products. Informal
talks began Thursday.

The meeting is sponsored by the U.N. Environmental Program and is an
extension of failed talks 11 months ago in Cartagena, Colombia, on what is
called the Biosafety Protocol. The Cartagena meeting collapsed when the
United States, Canada, Australia, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile blocked a
draft accepted by 125 other countries.

The U.S. and other grain-exporting countries demanded that commodities such
as corn and soy beans be exempted from strict controls even though they
account for most of the global trade in genetically modified goods.

Critics of genetic engineering say gene-splicing has the potential for
environmental catastrophe. Proponents say such arguments ignore the promise
and benefits to humanity of scientific advancement.

One of the speakers who addressed the protesters Saturday warned that
modern-day biotechnology is different from the centuries-old art of
selective and cross breeding.

Doreen Stabinsky, a scientist from California State University at
Sacramento, said that taking a gene from a flounder, for instance, and using
it to keep strawberries from freezing at low temperatures ``means you're
mixing and matching, you're mixing molecules that haven't coexisted within
that cell.''

Stabinsky and other speakers said that as genetically modified plants
crossbreed and evolve, the dangers range from disrupting natural processes
to causing extinctions.

``Hubris, arrogance and scientific ignorance are all there,'' she said.

AP-NY-01-22-00 1943EST


The New York Times

January 23, 2000

With U.S. Under Pressure, Biotechnology Talks to Resume


Nearly a year ago, the United States blocked a proposed global treaty to
regulate trade in genetically modified products. This week, with Washington
even more on the defensive after months of international protest and concern
about the uncertainties of genetically modified food, delegates from more
than 130 nations will try to negotiate a breakthrough.

Negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia, collapsed last February when the United
States and five other big grain-exporting nations rejected a proposal
supported by the other countries that would have required exporters of
genetically modified corn, soybeans and other crops to obtain permission in
advance from the importing country.

Since then, public concern about possible health and ecological risks of
biotechnology foods has intensified in Europe and spread to other countries.

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration recently held three
public hearings on the subject. Gerber and Heinz have said they would avoid
genetically engineered ingredients in baby food, and Monsanto, the leader in
biotech seeds, has been accused in a lawsuit of selling these seeds without
adequately testing them, a charge the company denies.

The intensifying debate is expected to put pressure on Washington to make a
deal in the new talks, to be held in Montreal. "Hopefully there's been
enough ferment in the U.S. that the U.S. is prepared to say, 'We need to get
something in place,' " said Kristin Dawkins of the Institute for Agriculture
and Trade Policy in Minneapolis, a nonprofit organization that favors such a

Still, divisions remain deep, and it is unclear whether an agreement will be
reached by Friday, the self-imposed deadline. Talks on biotechnology at the
World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in December went nowhere amid
wide disagreements and huge street protests. Demonstrations are planned in
Montreal, where authorities say they do not expect the protests to cause the
same havoc as in Seattle.

Developing nations and those in Europe say the treaty, known as the
Biosafety Protocol, is needed to allow countries to restrict the import of
plants, seeds, animals and foods made with genetic engineering.

The United States, while not opposing a treaty in principle, says the
proposals under discussion would entangle agricultural trade in red tape and
endanger billions of dollars in American farm exports. The United States
leads the world in biotechnology, and last year, half of the American
soybean crop and one-third of the corn was genetically engineered.

American industry and government officials accuse Europe of wanting a treaty
to help it erect trade barriers and to justify the restrictive stance it is
already taking on genetically modified foods.

David Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for oceans, environment and
science and the chief United States negotiator, said, "We'll be coming to
Montreal to negotiate and hoping to make a deal." He said that given the
furor over genetically modified foods in Europe, "I'm worried that European
leaders won't have the flexibility they need to take reasoned, centrist
positions on this."

Christoph Bail, the lead negotiator for the European Union, said Europe does
not need a treaty to restrict imports of biotech crops because it already
has its own legislation. Rather, it favors a strong treaty to help
developing nations. He said that Europe would be flexible and that he was
"mildly optimistic" that an agreement could be reached.

With Europe and some individual countries now regulating biotech foods on
their own, industry executives say they could actually benefit from a
treaty -- providing it is not too onerous -- that would unify regulations
around the world and assuage public concerns.

"We would be willing to put up with quite a bit of nonsense in return for
predictability," said L. Val Giddings, vice president for food and
agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an American trade

But he added that proposed regulations look unworkable and are not spelled
out in enough detail. "We're being told to jump off the Empire State
Building and make your parachute on the way down," he said.

The biosafety talks are an outgrowth of the 1992 Convention on Biological
Diversity. Since the Senate never ratified that convention, the United
States will not be able to vote in Montreal and must rely on its allies --
Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile and Uruguay -- to speak for it in the
formal meetings.

The rationale for the biosafety treaty was that genetically modified plants,
animals or micro-organisms could displace or endanger native crops or
microbes. But, much to the dismay of biotech industry and Washington, the
talks have moved well beyond species preservation to broader trade and
political controversies surrounding still unproven health risks of
bioengineered food.

The heart of the proposed Biosafety Protocol -- and the biggest sticking
point in the negotiations -- is a requirement that exporters of "living
modified organisms" notify the importing nation in advance, giving that
nation a chance to reject the shipment.

Washington contends that such a requirement is appropriate for bioengineered
seeds, bacteria or animals that are released into the environment, but not
for commodities like wheat and corn that are eaten or processed, since they
are not released into the environment. Since genetically modified and
unmodified grains are now often intermixed in shipments, such a requirement
would cost billions of dollars, requiring crops to be tracked from the field
to the docks, it says.

But Europe and the developing countries say that concerns about high costs
are exaggerated and that agricultural commodities should be included because
they contain seeds that can be planted or can escape into the environment.

Another sticking point is that Washington, worried that the biosafety rules
will be a pretense for trade barriers, wants to make sure the treaty does
not take precedence over World Trade Organization rules.

But the developing countries and Europe say Washington's proposed wording
would subordinate the Biosafety Protocol to the World Trade Organization,
which they do not want.

What is at stake in this argument is that under World Trade Organization
rules, a nation must base a decision to bar imports of a product on
scientific evidence. But Europe and the developing countries want the
biosafety treaty to allow such decisions to be made on the basis of
reasonable concerns, even in the absence of hard evidence.

Some compromises have been put forward, but all sides agree they have not
gone far enough to bridge the gaps. Washington has offered to disseminate
information on the Internet as soon as genetically modified crops are
approved by federal regulators, giving other countries time to decide
whether they will allow imports.

American and European officials do agree that the treaty should not cover
the labeling on store shelves of biotech foods. That is a matter for
domestic legislation, they say. What is at issue in Montreal is the labeling
on shipments of genetically modified crops and seeds.

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