SYDNEY, Australia ¿ Major food-producing nations, including Australia and the U.S., are fighting with a coalition of European nations and ¿green¿ groups over a biosafety protocol governing genetically modified foods at a meeting in Cartagena, Colombia.
The groups at the United Nations initiated talks are disputing over whether or not to control genetically modified foods with a regulatory regime similar to the regime now applied to hazardous wastes.
As BioWorld International went to press Tuesday, it was unclear whether the meeting had reached any conclusion, or had broken up without any agreement but with the delegates deciding to meet later.
Media reports, written mainly from the environmental perspective, indicate that the food-producing nations of the U.S., Australia, Canada, Uruguay and Argentina (of which the first three are also beginning to use biotechnology methods in their agricultural sectors) have, for the moment, successfully blocked attempts to greatly toughen controls on trade in genetically modified food.
Trade in such foods is already covered by World Trade Organization rules, which are quite strict where the material concerned is still living or a seed of some kind, such as an apple or a raspberry. But, with modified material that is, say, canned or processed, normal import-export rules largely still apply. That is, the company actually importing the material takes responsibility for it.
However, ¿green¿ groups in the European nations and developing nations want to use the biosafety protocol ¿ the suggested protocol that was one result of the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil and of another agreement on biodiversity ¿ to extend the controls now used for living, genetically processed material to processed material as well.
The U.S. is at the meeting as an observer (it did not sign the original biodiversity agreement), but has still objected along with Australia and the other food producing nations to the wording of biosafety protocol.
David Robertson, a director for the center for the practice of international trade at the Melbourne Business School, attached to Melbourne University, said that the reaction of ¿green¿ groups and other non-government organizations was predictable. They are against anything having to do with genetic engineering as too dangerous.
However, the European nations were anxious to see the biosafety protocol in place, as it meant another barrier against food imports, and so another means of protecting their heavily subsidized agricultural sectors. If the protocol was adopted unchanged, exporting nations would have to treat genetically modified foods in the same way as hazardous wastes ¿ that is, they would have to satisfy themselves according to strict standards that the receiving country was able to properly handle the material.
Genetically modified crops and new biotechnologies offered high crop yields and a possible reduction in the use of chemicals, and genetic engineering and testing are already subject to tight regulations.
Although opposition to the protocol had been dressed up as concern for the environment, it was difficult not to see the dispute in Cartagena as anything more than the European nations trying to erect another barrier to food imports ¿ and so continue protection of their own agricultural sectors, Robertson said. n