BIOSAFETY PROTOCOL TALKS
UNITED NATIONS TALKS OPEN ON TRANSGENIC CROP LABELLING & SAFETY
MONTPELLIER, France, 11 December, Agence France Presse
A five-day round of talks opened here Monday among signatories of a UN treaty on biosafety to discuss the labelling and transport of genetically-altered crops.
The talks, gathering around 500 delegates from more than 130 countries, is the first since the accord, the Biosafety Protocol, was hammered out in Montreal after arduous negotiations.
The protocol aims to set down clear international rules for trade in genetically-engineered raw foods, an issue that has become a heated political question in Europe.
It notably entitles countries to bar such materials if they have scientific grounds for fearing there could be an impact on health or the environment.
The follow-up meeting in Montpellier are mainly technical but of big interest to crop producers in North America.
They are worried about the potential cost of meeting the treaty's requirements to label shipments that "may contain" genetically-modified materials, as this could require them, for instance, to separate consignments of engineered corn and ordinary corn.
The biggest questions, diplomats said, are how to identify and handle shipments with modified organisms; setting up a global network and a databank on information about these organisms; and punishing countries that violate the agreement.
The negotiations aim at clearing up important details so that the Biosafety Protocol can be presented for ratification by its signatories, for which the goal of 2002 has been set.
At least 50 countries are required to ratify it for it to take effect. Only two -- Bulgaria and Trinidad and Tobago -- have done so.
French Environment Minister Dominique Voynet, a Green, said in opening remarks that the rapid advances of biotechnology in recent years had inspired "hope and fears" among consumers.
"The hopes focus on health, with genetic engineering techniques able to lead to therapeutic advances. The fears concern the impact of using GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) for producing plants for food," she said.
"No-one opposes genetic modifications if saves lives. However, many consumers wonder why they should accept the potential risk posed by this technology if the only point is to grow corn faster to improve the bottom line of large corporations," she said.
The Biosafety Protocol was concluded after tough negotiations between the European Union (EU) and developing countries on one side and big agricultural producers, led by the United States, Canada and Argentina.
These latter countries are the world's biggest producers of genetically-modified cereals. Genetically-modified organisms are crops that have had genes added to them to improve yields or their resistance to pests. The most popular crops are corn, cotton, potatoes, soybean and tomatoes. But these are only the first generation of altered foods that is expected later to include farm animals and fish.
Genetically-modified food ingredients are widely on sale in north America but are banned or shunned in other countries, especially in western Europe, where a series of food hygiene scandals has sensitised opinion to arguments from environmentalists that the new crops carry unknown dangers.
The Biosafety Protocol covers raw foods, not those that have been processed.