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BRUSSELS, Jan 29 (Reuters) - Environmental groups on Saturday applauded an
agreement reached by international regulators in Montreal on regulating trade
in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used in food.
``This is a historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers
from the dangers of genetic engineering,'' Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace
said in a statement.
``These minimum safety standards must be implemented immediately,'' he said.
``And until the protocol has come into force all exports of GMOs should be
Friends of the Earth in a separate statement also heralded the agreement.
``For the past week the United States and its cronies have been holding the
rest of the world to ransom to protect the vested interests of a few
companies,'' it said.
``They have not succeeded and now we have a protocol to regulate genetically
modified crops and foods.''
BRUSSELS, Jan 29 (Reuters) - The European Union said on Saturday that it
welcomed an agreement reached by international regulators in Montreal on
regulating trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) used in food.
``This is a historical moment and a breakthrough for international agreements
on trade and the environment,'' Margot Wallstron, the European commissioner
for environment, said in a statement.
``This agreement will benefit all sides,'' she said. ``It reflects the common
will to protect the world's environment and confirms the importance of the
Convention on Biodiversity. This international framework eases public concern
and creates predictability for industry.''
By Doug Palmer
MONTREAL, Jan 29 (Reuters) - More than 130 countries reached a landmark
agreement early on Saturday to regulate trade in genetically modified
organisms, a major part of the world's food supply that has raised
environmental and health concerns and strained international trade relations..
The U.N.-sponsored agreement strikes a delicate balance between the interests
of major exporters of genetically modified crops, such as the United States
and Canada, and importers in the European Union and developing countries,
which have expressed concerns about the health and environmental impact of
the new food varieties.
The agreement, which still must be ratified by 50 countries before it goes
into effect, establishes an international framework for countries to use when
making decisions about genetically modified crops.
It also requires, for the first time under an international agreement,
labeling of commodity shipments that ``may contain'' genetically modified
foods. But there is no specific requirement that farmers or the grain
industry segregate conventional and modified crops, which the U.S. government
said could cost billions of dollars.
``On balance, we think this is an agreement that protects the environment
without disrupting world food trade,'' David Sandalow, assistant U.S.
secretary of state for oceans, environment and science, told reporters.
European Commission Environmental Minister Margot Wallstrom said the
protocol, signed by more than 130 countries, was a victory for consumers and
importers and an agreement of which all countries could be proud.
The pact also won praise from both industry groups and environmentalists, who
each feared the other would have more influence over the final outcome of a
pact on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
GMOs SPARK CONCERN
The term ``genetically modified organisms'' refers to plants and animals
containing genes transferred from other species to produce certain
characteristics, such as resistance to certain pests and herbicides.
Although any genetically modified organism planted in the United States is
subjected to U.S. government testing and approval, some groups feared the new
varieties could have adverse environmental and health effects. Many EU
consumers, suspicious of genetically engineered crops, favoured blocking
To reach an agreement, the United States and Canada had to accept stronger
language than they wanted recognising the right of countries to use
precautions in making import decisions.
With its language on the ``precautionary principle,'' the proposed Biosafety
Protocol agreement could set the stage for countries to close their markets
to genetically modified crops without conclusive scientific evidence of harm..
At the same time, the agreement also contains a ``savings clause,'' which
emphasises the new pact does not override rights and obligations under other
international agreements, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
The United States, which negotiated along with Canada as part of the Miami
Group bloc and therefore does not need congressional approval of the pact,
insisted on that language to ensure science-based WTO rules would still apply
to import decisions.
If a dispute arises over a country's decision to close its market to a food
product, the WTO will review the protocol before making a ruling, Wallstrom
U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Frank Loy acknowledged the
pact had some shortcomings from the U.S. point of view. ``Make no mistake.
The agreement is not perfect,'' Loy said.
LABELING WOULD BE NEGOTIATED
Once the protocol goes into effect, which could take two or three years,
commodity shipments that may contain GMOs will have to be labeled ``may
contain'' genetically modified organisms.
At that point, a new round of negotiations on more specific labeling
requirements will also have to begin, with the requirement of finishing in
Willy De Greef, director of regulatory and government affairs for Novartis, a
Swiss-based company that produces genetically modified corn varieties, said
the grain industry is already moving toward segregation.
``What we needed was a framework'' and the protocol provides that, De Greef
Steven Daugherty, director of government and industry relations for Pioneer
Hi-Bred International Inc., a U.S. producer of genetically modified seed,
also said the protocol's commodity provisions appeared to be workable.
Greenpeace, which had staged protests against genetically modified crops
throughout the week of negotiations, also gave its blessings to the pact.
``This is a historic step toward protecting the environment and consumers
from the dangers of genetic engineering,'' the group said.
A previous attempt to craft the Biosafety Protocol failed last year in
Cartagena, Colombia, mainly because the Miami Group feared it would block
In contrast to the bitterness that pervaded that effort, participants praised
the positive atmosphere of this week's negotiations in Montreal.
They also credited Colombian Environmental Minister Juan Myar, who chaired
the talks, for forcing negotiators to resolve their many issues to reach an
.c The Associated Press
By MATT CRENSON
MONTREAL (AP) - U.N. talks here finally produced rules governing trade in
genetically engineered products Saturday, nearly a year after previous talks
collapsed in the face of international discord.
The new rules are complex, and many may be subject to legal challenges or
interpretations. But for now they contain language letting a country ban
imports of a genetically modified product if it feels there is not enough
scientific evidence showing the product is safe.
It requires exporters to label shipments that contain genetically altered
commodities such as corn or cotton. It also tries to dictate how those safety
rules will coexist with free trade rules governed by the World Trade
The United States, a major producer of genetically engineered products, had
opposed labeling and had fought import bans except in cases where the product
is shown to be risky. It was forced to make concessions on those and several
Fighting back tears, the conference's president, Juan Mayr, congratulated his
colleagues on reaching a compromise.
``The adoption of this protocol represents a victory for the environment,''
The protocol is intended to protect the environment from damage due to
genetically modified organisms. Environmentalists and some scientists worry
that bioengineered plants, animals and bacteria could wipe out native strains
or spread their genetic advantages to weeds and other undesirable species.
``There's fish genes in fruit, poultry genes in fish, animal genes in plants,
growth hormones in milk, insect genes in vegetables, tree genes in grain and
in the case of pork, human genes in meat,'' said Steve Gilman, an organic
farmer in Stillwater, N.Y.
A first attempt to draw up a biosafety protocol ended last February in
Cartagena, Colombia, when the United States and five partners blocked a pact
that was acceptable to the other 125 countries.
Saturday's new agreement came after a week of intense negotiations that
pitted the United States and its five allies in the talks - Canada,
Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay - against the European Union and a
coalition of developing nations. As protesters stood outside in single-digit
temperatures chanting ``Hey, ho, GMOs have got to go,'' negotiators worked
until just before dawn to hammer out the final details.
The EU and developing nations had argued that countries should be allowed to
refuse imports of a genetically modified product if little is known about its
environmental effect. The United States and its partners had disagreed,
saying many of the proposed rules would restrict trade.
But the political situation changed in the last year, with major U.S. food
producers like Archer Daniels Midland and Gerber either demanding that
genetically modified products be segregated from other products or refusing
to use them altogether. Scientific studies have suggested that monarch
butterflies and other beneficial insects may be harmed by genetically
And protests at the WTO talks in Seattle last month also suggested that the
American public has concerns about genetically altered food.
EU negotiators, whose constituency strongly opposes genetic modifications in
food, used the changed climate to exact a number of concessions from the U.S..
delegation. Nonetheless, U.S. negotiators said they were satisfied with the
``The agreement that we achieved is a very substantial improvement over the
agreement we started with,'' U.S. Undersecretary of State Frank Loy said.
In the end, the sides' most serious differences turned out to be over how the
biosafety protocol would relate to WTO rules, and whether shipments of
genetically modified commodities should be labeled.
Environmentalists have complained in recent years that the WTO's free trade
pact has overridden regulations meant to protect human and ecological health..
But Saturday's agreement calls for the biosafety protocol and the WTO rules
to be ``mutually supportive'' with nothing ``intended to subordinate this
Protocol to other international agreements.''
Under the protocol, exporters will be required to apply the label ``may
contain living modified organisms'' to all shipments containing genetically
altered commodities. The protocol allows for a revision of that labeling
policy after two years.
In a legal question mark, the United States has neither signed nor ratified
the biodiversity treaty that oversees the new protocol. So technically, the
U.S. is not bound to honor it.
``Not being part of this treaty makes it more challenging for us here,'' U.S..
negotiator David Sandalow said.
Genetically modified crops are already widespread. About 70 million acres of
genetically engineered plants were cultivated worldwide in 1999. In the
United States, genetically engineered varieties account for about 25 percent
of corn and 40 percent of soybeans.
Biotechnology proponents point to the potential of the technology to increase
yields and improve nutrition.
``The longer I use it the more I believe in it,'' said Robert M. Boeding, an
Iowa farmer who has grown genetically modified corn for the last five years.
He says the modified strain keeps him from having to use dangerous pesticides
to protect his crop from insects.
Activists won the propaganda war with clever words and images. The
serious-looking guys in suits never stood a chance
It was a classic David-vs.-Goliath battle. In one corner: a motley crew of
activists and environmentalists from around the world, most of them crammed
into a nondescript apartment hotel on Rene Levesque Blvd. In the other:
businessmen and bureaucrats from the world's most powerful nation and a few
of its close allies, most of them staying in the Delta or the
They had all come to Montreal to attend the contentious, drawn-out meetings
that saw nearly 140 countries trying to hammer out a Biosafety Protocol under
the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. The industry
suits represented power and money; the activists represented public anxiety.
David vs. Goliath, then. But as the week wore on, it became crystal-clear
just who, in terms of media savvy and public perception, was the beleaguered
underdog: the suits of the biotech industry.
There were really two wars being fought in the meeting rooms of the Delta and
the nearby International Civil Aviation Building. The first was over the
terms of the Protocol: whether it would allow nations to say "no" to
genetically modified products, and whether the agreement's prime goal would
be to protect biodiversity or trade. The second was to win the consciousness
of a North American public that has only begun to wake up to the urgency of
the whole biotech debate.
In Europe, by contrast, the issue has been hot for years. Hot enough for
European governments, nervous of an angry electorate, to take a surprisingly
forceful stand this week against the pro-industry position of Canada, the
U.S. and the four other grain-exporting countries in the "Miami Group."
The battle for public consciousness was dominated by the activists. They
played the media like a Stradivarius. All through the week, each day saw them
come up with a new tactic, a startling new image. It might be Greenpeace's
massive inflatable corncob, complete with fangs and bloodshot eyes, or its
human butterflies with six-foot plywood wings - in each case, a graphic
illustration of the doubts about transgenic food and its impact on nature.
It might be Friends of the Earth's subversive menu of genetically modified
food, given to the press a few hours before the politicians dined in the St.
James Club, or their emerald-coloured poster asking citizens to locate
Canada's environment minister, David Anderson, "who was last seen making
It might be Biotech Action Montreal's candlelight vigil in sub-Arctic
temperatures "to enlighten Canadian negotiators," or the march it helped to
organize as the meetings began.
Of course, the activists had no control over the way their demonstrations
would be reported in the press. Last Saturday's march through the chilly
streets, for example. Were there "more than 600" protesters, as The Gazette
reported? Were there "about 1,000," as the Associated Press said? Or was it
just a "troupe of 300," as a National Post columnist declared?
However many they were, the demonstrators were pictured in newspapers as far
away as Hong Kong and Madrid. They got their point across to the world:
whatever compromise deal the bureaucrats were trying to cook up, large
numbers of ordinary citizens wanted nothing to do with it.
Admittedly, the industry did its best. To put their viewpoint across, their
spokesmen were working hand-in-hand with National Public Relations, one of
Canada's leading PR companies.
John Wildgust, a former journalist and broadcaster, was among the NPR
officials handling the file for the Global Industry Coalition. When a feature
article appeared inThe Gazette on Jan. 20 that cast Canada's position into
question, Wildgust drafted a letter-to-the-editor that reached the newspaper
the same day and was published on Jan. 22.
The front man for the coalition - and the official writer of that letter -
was actually a woman: Joyce Groote. The executive director of BIOTECanada (an
industry group with more than 100 member companies), she also headed the
Global Industry Coalition, a lobby group for more than 2,200 firms worldwide..
Despite NPR's efforts, however, the industry lobby often seemed a step behind
the activists. Wildgust realized he was facing an uphill task.
"It's a crappy idea, I know," he confided on Tuesday, "but I've been thinking
about bringing in all those studies that prove the safety of genetically
modified food, and stacking them in a 7-foot-high pile. It would show the
weight of the scientific evidence."
By Thursday, he had abandoned the notion.
"The problem is," Wildgust said, "you guys in the media would want to read
Or take the case of the battling farmers. Early in the week, the Global
Industry Coalition flew in four farmers from the North American Midwest - all
of them white, earnest, middle-aged men in glasses and suits.
One of them, a Manitoba wheat-grower, offered the stunning non-sequitur: "I
get up in the morning and use the margarine on my toast, so there's no reason
not to use Round-Up Ready canola in my fields."
Next morning, Greenpeace countered. In co-operation with the Third World
Network, it brought in "Farmers Against Genetic Pollution." There were five
of them; they came from five countries on three continents, and spoke four
mother tongues; but their pro-organic message was the same. To
deadline-strapped journalists, here was a story already packaged and
One PR professional, speaking from his Toronto office on condition of
anonymity, agreed that Greenpeace is "extraordinarily good" at conducting an
emotional debate. The opinion polls he has seen over the last few months show
that Greenpeace and other interest groups, such as the Council of Canadians
and the Sierra Club, have succeeded in weakening "the inherent trust that
Canadians have in their food." A large and growing percentage of the public
is now uneasy about the food it buys.
This source - a former newspaperman - now advises major players in the
biotechnology industry. He has trained many government scientists to deal
with the media. But to his frustration, their pro-biotech message has not yet
got across. Now the PR man is contemplating fresh tactics.
"I've been urging my clients to use women as spokespeople," he said, "so I'm
glad to see Joyce Groote playing a prominent role in Montreal. Women
spokespeople have more credibility with the people who actually buy
groceries: other women.
"The industry should also collaborate more - part of the trouble with the
pro-GM side is that lots of people have been coming at the issue from
different directions. And they need to give the TV people something to show
on the screens other than just Greenpeace ranting and blowing up inflatable
ears of corn."
On Thursday, a sign of the industry's frustration mysteriously appeared on a
table in the atrium of the ICAO Building. The table featured the usual
barrage of statements and press releases from environmental groups and
official delegations (the European Union took the unofficial prize for Most
Boring Communique of the Week thanks to a statement titled "Commissioner
Wallstrom urges all parties to do their utmost.")
But that morning, there were also multiple copies of a yellow sheet titled
"The Growing Consensus: Greenpeace Values Rhetoric Over Real Progress on
Environmental Issues." Call it anonymous agitprop from the biotech side: the
page of anti-Greenpeace diatribes came with no attribution. Industry
officials denied all knowledge of the matter.
Beyond the clear bitterness of the diatribe, you can see it as a backhanded
tribute to the protesters' success. The authorized information coming from
the industry side was often dull as ditchwater. Compare the prose in these
two handouts offered to the media, one called "Capacity Building: The
Biotechnology Industry Perspective," the other called "Warning: Unsafe Trade
Partners on the Loose in Montreal."
- "Identification of priority status, determined through the application of
appropriate criteria, and economic impact assessments should be performed
prior to initiation of projects. As well, certain basic elements are required
to facilitate biotechnology development such as institutional procedures and
government policies." (source: BIOTECanada)
- "The passionate and strong defence of the precautionary principle taken by
the European delegation is very welcome. The position of countries like
America and Canada is inexcusable, isolated and untenable. People throughout
the world have the right to protect their environment and be safe rather than
sorry." (source: Friends of the Earth International)
The activists were fast as well as smart. On Thursday afternoon, Friends of
the Earth were passing out a press statement, printed on their trademark
green paper, less than 10 minutes after the chairman of the meetings,
Colombia's Juan Mayr, had adjourned a plenary session in visible dismay at
the tactics of the Miami Group - led, or at least represented, by Canada.
But the effectiveness of the protest movement went beyond rapid response,
crisp prose and visually arresting devices like the huge corncob and the
human butterflies. For the protesters at Montreal also included groups with a
proven scientific track record. Their presence made it hard for the biotech
industry to claim with any conviction that this was a battle between science
on the one hand and superstition on the other.
The World Wildlife Fund, for example, issued a long report called "GM
Technology in the Forest Sector." It pointed out that while at least 116
field trials have taken place around the world on genetically modified trees,
little research has been done on the overall environmental impact of the
technology. Pine pollen has been shown to travel as far as 600 kilometres,
making genetic threats to the wild environment more than merely theoretical.
A corn plant lasts but a summer; trees endure for years.
>From Britain, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds weighed in with a
draft discussion paper, aimed squarely at delegates to the conference,
demolishing the arguments in favour of a "savings clause" that Canada and its
few allies had made. Such a clause would leave the entire protocol at the
mercy of World Trade Organization panels that could override the efforts of
individual nations to decide against genetically modified products.
Yet it was Greenpeace, for better or worse, that symbolized the fight against
the biotech industry. Greenpeace has branches in at least 30 countries, many
of which sent a representative to Montreal - so that delegates from the Czech
Republic or Argentina, say, could be pressured by activists from back home.
Steve Shallhorn, the campaign director of Greenpeace Canada, admitted that
winning a strong protocol was only one of his three goals in Montreal:
"We also want to let consumers know what biotechnology has in store for them..
And we want to expose the close relationship between the Canadian government
and the biotech industry.
"One of the Canadian delegates admitted that they foresee a future in which
regular food will be sold at a premium to a niche market, while the masses
will be eating genetically modified food. I think that shows an incredible
arrogance toward the public he's paid to represent."
Just as the biotech industry is unwilling to admit that the proliferation of
genetically modified organisms has any dangers, Greenpeace is unwilling to
admit that biotechnology has any real benefits. It's rare to find an
environmental issue on which the positions are not only so harsh but so
opposed. Common ground? Forget it.
"The public attention to what's going on here has had an enormous influence,"
said Michael Khoo, genetic engineering campaigner for Greenpeace Canada. "The
sustained consumer interest in what a bunch of bureaucrats have been doing
all week - this is something unique."
But in the end, the debate wasn't just about trade or science. It was also
about values. Joyce Groote of BIOTECanada admitted as much when she said, "It
comes down to something fundamental. We're in business to be accountable; the
other side is not. And there's a very high ethical culture in the industry."
Greenpeace's Khoo was happy to talk about science. But he also wanted to
evoke "a silent, moral majority, made up of people from all walks of life,
that's running in our favour. There's a general moral feeling that it's not
right to cross the species boundary."
Both sides insist that in the assessment of risk, impartial science is on
their side. For a layman, it's hard to assess the rival claims. Yet if the
question comes down to ethics, the biotech industry may have good reason to
be running scared.