Being Careful With GMOs

February 4, 2000

By Michael Jessen

When in doubt, don't. Better to be safe than sorry. Err on the side of caution. The world took these words to heart last week as 138 nations agreed after protracted negotiations in Montreal that countries have the right to restrict imports of genetically modified (GM) foods.

It was a titanic struggle as the United States, Canada, Australia, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile - known as the Miami Group - began the five day conference arguing that such limits would break the World Trade Organization's free trade rules. But after an all-night bargaining session presided over by Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr, a breakthrough was announced just before dawn last Saturday.

The Biosafety Protocol allows countries to restrict imports of genetically modified products if they fear these products may harm human health or get into the environment and damage it. The protocol ensures all countries, including poor ones with weak regulatory systems, know what genetically modified organisms are crossing their borders and how they might affect their environments.

Michael Meacher, the United Kingdom Environment Minister, said that for the first time the principle of caution about GM foods has been anchored in an international agreement. "It is official that the environment rules aren't subordinate to the trade rules. It's been one hell of a battle," Meacher added.

"The significance of establishing the precautionary principle, which environmentalists have lobbied for across many issues, can not be understated," said Philip Bereano of the Council for Responsible Genetics and a professor in technology and public policy at the University of Washington.

"In addition, tlhe provisions of this treaty signifies that GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are not the same as conventionally grown crops," said Bereano. "Industry has been making this argument while at the same time taking out patents that say they're completely different. This treaty emphatically establishes that GMOs present different kinds of risks that require particular scrutiny. The agreement is a tremendous victory for the environment."

The European Union had argued that living modified organisms (LMOs) -- often referred to as GMOs -- should be labelled to alert consumers. Critics say these organisms have not been adequately tested for effects on human health. Another major concern is that genetically modified organisms could proliferate in the environment, wiping out native species.

LMOs include food crops that have been genetically modified for greater productivity or nutritional value, or for resistance to pests or diseases. Common examples include tomatoes, grains, cassava, corn, and soybeans. Seeds for growing crops are particularly important to negotiators because they are used intentionally to propagate or reproduce LMOs in the environment. Together, these agricultural LMOs form the basis of a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Pharmaceuticals derived using LMOs form the basis of an even larger industry.

Canada has approved more than 40 genetically altered crops, including herbicide-resistant canola and slow-ripening tomatoes, and many more are in development. The European Union has refused to import genetically modified crops such as canola because there may be a risk to human health.

In the end, the two sides agreed that shipments of GM commodities should bear labels saying they "may contain" genetically modified organisms and are not intended for intentional introduction into the environment. The deal also requires countries to begin negotiations on more specific labelling requirements to take effect no later than two years after the protocol enters into force.

Talks over the treaty stalled in Cartagena, Colombia last February when the Miami Group would not agree to a draft accepted by 125 other countries. The two sides clashed again on the issue at the unsuccessful Seattle WTO talks last December.

The biosafety agreement will be known as the Cartagena Protocol and it represents the first binding international agreement addressing situations where LMOs cross national borders. It is an environmental treaty, part of the Convention on Biological Diversity that was ratified at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The protocol is a set of rules meant to protect the biodiversity of the world's ecosystem by setting limits on the import of plants and animals whose genes have been altered. It is also intended to ensure the safe transfer, handling, use, and disposal of LMOs. The U.S. Senate has not ratified the treaty so the U.S. attended the Montreal talks as an observer - but undeniably the most influential country in the negotiations since the majority of food grown and sold in the U.S. comes from genetically engineered plants.

Environmental and industry groups both gave the protocol a thumbs up. "This is a historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers from the dangers of genetic engineering," said Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace.

"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," said the group Friends of the Earth. "They have not succeeded and now we have a protocol to regulate genetically modified crops and foods."

Steven Daugherty, director of government and industry relations for Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a U.S. producer of genetically modified seed, said the protocol's commodity provisions appeared to be workable.

This protocol enshrines the precautionary principle as a basic tenet of international environmental law. The principle declares that where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

During the conference there were charges that Canada and its allies tried to delete the precautionary principle from the draft agreement. The Miami Group was also accused of defending their trade agenda at the expense of environmental concerns.

The protocol is only one struggle in the battle between proven usefulness against unproven but possible danger. In a world of six billion people where one mistake can cost the lives of many, it is sobering to remember examples like DDT and thalidomide that were once declared safe by the scientific community. In Montreal, the world took a small step toward heeding the words of poet Alexander Pope who wrote: "How prone to doubt, how cautious are the wise!"

ONE SMALL STEP - The role played by Canada's Environment Minister David Anderson at this conference appears huge. Under tremendous pressure to act as a spokesperson for the U.S., Anderson deserves credit for helping to broker this deal which he declares "puts the environment and trade on the same footing." You can e-mail him at His telephone number is (613) 996-2358 and his fax number is (613) 952-1458. Let him know that precaution is not a cowardly act.

RESOURCES - The International Institute for Sustainable Development in Winnipeg is an excellent online resource for following conferences such as the one in Montreal. You can find detailed conference proceedings including photographs and Real Audio comments on the web site The Canadian Alert on Genetic Engineering (at scrutinizes the initiatives of multinational biotechnology corporations. A detailed backgrounder on the Biosafety Protocol can be found on the Friends of the Earth web site at The Office of Biotechnology at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency can be found at Science writer Jon R. Luoma's article "Pandora's Pantry" explores the world of genetically modified food in the February 2000 issue of Mother Jones magazine.

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