World GMO Treaty Pits EU Against Its Trade Partners
Author: Jeremy Smith
Europe's sceptical stance on GMOs has long poisoned its trade relations with biotech-friendly countries like the United States, Canada and Argentina, where consumers shrug off claims from green groups that these products may be pose risks.
In Europe, genetically modified maize, soybeans and other crops and their products are shunned as "Frankenstein Foods" by most consumers, leading retailers to keep them off shelves.
This puts a dent in world trade and prompted the GMO-growing trio to file suit against the EU at the World Trade Organisation for its policy, begun in 1998, of not accepting imports of new GMOs: the EU's de facto moratorium, which ended last year.
The battleground now switches to a UN treaty, the Cartagena Protocol, that came into force in 2003 and aims for more transparency and control in international GMO trade.
It has been signed by 116 countries but not the United States, the world's GMO giant. Negotiations on implementation and enforcement have moved slowly, with the next meeting set for Montreal in late May and early June.
The protocol obliges exporters to provide more information on GMO products like maize and soybeans before any shipment to recipient countries, to help them decide whether to accept it.
Crucially, it lets a nation reject GMO imports or donations, even without scientific proof, if it fears they pose a danger to traditional crops, undermine local cultures or cut the value of biodiversity to indigenous communities.
The biotech industry complains the treaty will create costs running into millions of dollars for testing export cargoes for the presence of gene-altered grains.
In the meantime, those countries that have not signed the treaty -- the major exporters, who say GMOs are no different from natural organisms -- are struggling to make their voices heard.
This was the situation at the last major meeting of the protocol's signatory countries in Kuala Lumpur in February 2004.
"They (exporters) were unhappy (at Kuala Lumpur). They get their view heard and then it's ignored," said Doreen Stabinsky, genetic engineering campaigner at Greenpeace International.
"They were frustrated, they will continue to be frustrated and they'll do what they can to influence the terms of the agreement," she told Reuters.
TOO COMPLEX, INDUSTRY SAYS
Many details on how countries put the protocol into practice still have to be thrashed out. Whatever happens, all signatories must work its provisions into national laws. And this is where GMO exporters, and the biotech industry, want to play a role.
"The protocol itself is not so bad, it's how it would be interpreted. It's a question of how far you go. That's where the battleground for ideas will be," said Christian Verschueren, director-general of CropLife International, a Brussels-based federation representing the global plant science industry.
"The complexity of this could grind the trade to a halt and add costs. Liability is also one of the major issues," he said. "We're seeing two trading blocs emerge, GMO and non-GMO. It will eventually equalise out, but it's creating some tension."
US officials say they want to see proper implementation of the protocol by its signatories, in line with WTO rules. If not, this would disrupt trade and could be challenged.
EU diplomats were sceptical about US attempts to influence the final shape of the treaty.
"It really doesn't look like it's progressing very fast," said one. "The US doesn't think we (EU) have implemented it in a particularly fair way so I can't see what the immediate incentive is for them to take the process very seriously."
Problem areas for the Montreal meeting will be agreeing requirements for labelling and documentation of GMO cargoes, as well as thresholds for the percentage content of GMO material that may exist by chance in a non-GMO shipment.
"There will be a push by the Unit