By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - Starting this weekend, more than 160 nations will enter final negotiations on a Biosafety Protocol in Cartagena, Columbia, that could severely restrict the trade of a wide swath of products exported by U.S. manufacturers, including foodstuffs, textiles and pharmaceuticals.

With global trade opportunities hanging in the balance, the U.S. has no seat at the negotiating table. Nevertheless, a contingent of State Department officials and representatives from a number of potentially affected industries will make the trip to Cartagena, in an attempt to sway the voting delegations into adopting more trade friendly policies.

"For the key issues in this protocol, there are a number of proposals," said Val Giddings, vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). "And [although] most of those proposals are bad, a few may be palatable. We really don't know what will happen."

The protocol is a part of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, and was originally aimed at ensuring that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) do not overwhelm native organisms, inhibit their ecological niche and cause their extinction. In other words, the convention wanted to ensure that genetically modified seed crops capable of reproduction do not wreak havoc on native species of plants by "out-competing" them.

Negotiations Ongoing Since 1992

Negotiations on the protocol have been ongoing in some fashion since 1992, but formally began in 1996. As the negotiations proceeded, some countries lobbied to expand the protocol to include all products that are derived from GMOs. This proposal risks putting in place an entirely new set of regulations that would require additional permits for any product that fits this description, including products such as recombinant insulin, garments and textiles made from genetically modified cotton, detergents using enzymes as cleaning agents, and a host of raw and processed food products.

Karil Kochenderfer, director of international trade and environmental affairs at the Grocery Manufactures of America, said cotton is "one of the crops where biotechnology has made the largest penetration. By expanding the scope of the treaty, [officials] have lost sight of the fact that biotechnology is an area where sound environmental policy and sound trade policy go hand in hand."

President Clinton has signed the Convention on Biodiversity, but Congress has not ratified it. In fact, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has never placed the item on the committee's agenda - in effect, tabling the treaty. As a result, the U.S., the country with the world's largest biotechnology industry, has no vote in the proceedings in Cartagena.

Instead, the U.S. must rely on nations with similar interests to ensure the protocol doesn't include all products derived from GMOs. Giddings said environmental groups opposed to biotechnology (such as Greenpeace) and several developing nations - India and Malaysia among them - have lobbied for strict regulations. They argue that little is known about the effects of releasing GMOs into the environment. In addition, some nations are proposing strict regulations in an effort to trigger technology transfer.

Many members of the European Union, Australia and New Zealand are lobbying for a much narrower definition of products covered under the treaty.

"The definition of the products covered under this treaty is critical," Giddings said. "If the scope includes pharmaceuticals, we have a train wreck on our hands. If it is expanded beyond the original intent of the convention, we have serious problems with it."

Sara Radcliffe, research manager of biologics and biotechnology at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said her group is lobbying to ensure the protocol doesn't include human pharmaceuticals or research materials.

The Biosafety Protocol could take several different turns. At its most innocuous, the protocol could simply ratify current biotechnology regulation methods, which are left to individual countries, and could ensure countries do not use those regulatory barriers to unfairly block trade. Or, the countries could elect a new regulatory regime - one that covers the totality of biotechnology, and places strict limits on transfers of products derived from GMOs.

Kochendorfer said that, usually in such negotiations, "people meet and meet and meet, and a consensus begins to build. This protocol seems to be building more and more dissonance. The outcome is really uncertain."

Giddings noted that the entire argument over the protocol has obscured a basic fact about biotechnology, which is that it serves to protect rather than hinder biodiversity.

"The greatest threat to biodiversity is not biotechnology," he said. "It's razing the rainforest to plant crops to feed an expanding population. What biotechnology offers is the opportunity to plant on existing agricultural land more-sustainable, higher-yielding crops."