The Ottawa Citizen
Friday January 21, 2000
Sales pitch aimed at Europe, Third World
Pauline Tam, The Ottawa Citizen
MONTREAL—Canada will work aggressively to convince Europe and developing countries at a pivotal environmental conference next week that genetically modified foods pose no major risks to the natural world.
The controversial position will be front and centre at United Nations-sponsored talks aimed at a global green treaty to ensure the safe trade, handling and transportation of products altered by genetic engineering.
More than 130 countries are here to work out what’s called a Biosafety Protocol. After last month’s disastrous attempts in Seattle to launch a new round of world trade talks which, among other things, would have addressed genetically modified food, negotiators at this conference are under pressure to show they can agree on the divisive issue.
The talks, which officially start Monday, pit the world’s leading grain exporters against Europe and developing countries that are sensitive about genetic engineering. The conflict highlights, on an international level, uncertainties over how to deal with a technology whose ecological consequences are not yet well understood.
The grain-exporting group, led by Canada, balks at environmental controls that would limit foreign markets for genetically modified crops.
While the countries are willing to accept special trade rules on products intended to go directly into the environment—such as planting seeds, fish and trees altered by genetic engineering— they insist genetically modified farm crops destined for food, feed and processing should be excluded from the treaty.
The distinction is necessary because unlike seeds or animals whose genes can escape into the wild, harvested crops are stored and shipped in such a way that they pose little risk to the natural world, the countries argue.
“We suggest that those (crops) that are processed into food do not require the same oversight that you would want to give those that are planted directly in the environment,” says Joyce Groote, the Ottawa-based spokeswoman for a coalition of biotech companies backing the position of Canada and its allies.
The countries are also firm in their position that trade in food as a commodity is best handled by the World Trade Organization, not by a pact aimed at protecting the environment.
Those views are at odds with the position held by Europe and
other countries. The Europeans are pushing for a broader treaty definition
that would include key export staples such as corn, soybean and canola.
In effect, they want an agreement that would allow countries to block imports
of genetically modified products without fear of trade sanctions, at least
until such products can be proved safe.
Such distinctions may seem arcane, but billions of dollars are riding on the fine points contained in these negotiations. The stakes are highest for the United States and Canada, two main exporters of genetically modified crops.
In this country, as much as half of the $3-billion canola crop is genetically engineered to resist insects or weed-killing chemicals, while a quarter of corn and soy grown is estimated to be genetically modified.
European fears over genetically modified food have already strained the continent’s trade relations with the U.S. The European Union, which does not export any bioengineered crops, has rejected some types of genetically modified corn and canola, including several varieties from Canada. It has also said no new genetically engineered crops will be approved for the next few years.
Officially, the U.S. does not have a seat at the talks because it did not ratify the UN’s 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity on which the current round of talks is based. Nonetheless, as part of the so-called Miami Group of countries, which includes Canada, Australia, Uruguay and Chile, the U.S. has helped block previous attempts at forging a Biosafety Protocol.
Environmentalists opposed to the Miami Group position have planned a week of high-profile events to draw attention to the ecological dangers of genetically modified products. They accuse Canada and its partners of making unreasonable demands designed to weaken environmental protection.
Bob Olsen, Toronto firstname.lastname@example.org