By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON ¿ Efforts to create consensus on the Biosafety Protocol, which would dictate the terms under which genetically modified organisms can cross international borders, failed at a February meeting of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity in Cartagena, Columbia.

Several members of the European Union and several developing countries proposed a strict control over all genetically engineered products. Canada and Australia led a small group of countries representing the world¿s major agricultural producers, which seek to limit trade only in genetically modified organisms that could damage the environment.

As a result, the issue remains unresolved and will need to be addressed by the next meeting of the convention, slated for May 2000.

¿We remain in peril of a negative outcome from a mischievous process,¿ said Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, who traveled to Cartagena to lobby for industry-friendly terms. ¿It¿s unclear how progress will be made after the gap that crystallized in February.¿

The protocol, as part of the Convention on Biodiversity, was originally aimed at ensuring that genetically modified organisms don¿t inadvertently overwhelm native organisms, invade their ecological niche and cause their extinction.

Because Congress hasn¿t ratified the Convention on Biodiversity, the U.S. had no vote in the proceedings at Cartagena. Nevertheless, U.S. interests were represented by the Miami Group of Agricultural Exporters, which also includes Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile.

¿Part of the agreement when we started was to focus on the transborder movement of genetically modified organisms that posed a threat to the environment,¿ Giddings said. ¿The Europeans tried to do things that we agreed we wouldn¿t do.¿

Instead, Giddings noted, some European countries, at the behest of the environmental group Greenpeace ¿ which opposes biotechnology ¿ lobbied to expand the charge of the convention to include all products that are derived from genetically modified organisms. The proposal would, in effect, create an entirely new regulatory framework to regulate products as varied as recombinant insulin, garments, textiles manufactured from genetically modified cotton and detergents using enzymes as cleaning agents.

In addition, several developing nations saw the opportunity to trigger technology transfer by agreeing to the stricter protocol.

Because the United Nations Conventions rely on consensus for putting in place new international laws, a single no vote from one country could scuttle the proposal. The voting Miami Group countries were able to prevent the proposal from passing. Nations in the majority could have called for an actual vote on the protocol, but such a move carries with it a high level of stigma, Giddings said.

¿The Europeans were trying to gain political cache at home with this vote,¿ Giddings said. ¿Greenpeace carries a lot of sway in the public and has a $35 million budget to stop biotechnology. The ironic thing about it is that biotechnology offers a way for farmers to lessen their reliance on pesticides to produce crops.¿

Giddings noted that in the U.S. a genetically engineered cotton has allowed cotton growers to reduce their use of organophosphates by 850,000 gallons a year.

Further negotiations of the protocol haven¿t been scheduled. Giddings said that until it appears likely that a consensus will be developed, the Canadians and the European Union, which have financed most of the negotiations to date, are unlikely to foot the bill for another round. n

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