Saskatchewan, Canada, June 8, 2003: If any folks
in the farm community think the debate over genetically modified
(GM) crops will go away soon, they are going to be disappointed.
This one is here for the long term. Nevertheless, that is
precisely what those who support the GM industry have told
us for some time now: if we just wait a bit, GM crops will
be accepted worldwide, and the problem will be solved. The
problem, of course, is how to get our GM crops into countries
that do not want them.
Mind you, the GM industry is not sitting back and waiting
for this to happen. It is working actively on many fronts.
For example, the American government recently announced it
would appeal the European Union's ban on GM foods to the World
Trade Organization. Canada joined the U.S. on the bandwagon.
Under the WTO, countries cannot refuse entry to crops unless
there is clear scientific evidence these could harm human
health or the environment.
While GM optimists might hope tactics like this would force
major consumers like the EU, Japan and China to accept GM
products, other activities on the international stage may
move the debate in the opposite direction. A major factor
here is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. This international
agreement moved a step closer to reality in May when Columbia
became the 48th country to ratify it. Ratification is required
from only 50 countries for the Protocol to take effect worldwide.
Britain is expected to be the 49th. (Editor's Note:
The Protocol has now been ratified by 52 countries. Romania
was the last to sign June 30, 2003. Britain has not yet signed
The Cartagena Protocol arose from an international organization
called the Convention on Biological Diversity. This forum
was organized because nations felt the need to protect the
genetic diversity of plants and animals around the world.
While genetic diversity may not be the first concern for
most farmers, it is for plant breeders and scientists. So-called
modern varieties of crops like wheat, corn and rice are replacing
the traditional varieties that farmers in many countries,
mostly third world, grew for centuries. As the old varieties
disappear, crops become more and more genetically identical
and more susceptible to diseases and pests. Plant breeders
are continually looking to very old varieties of crops to
find genes with resistance against the new diseases that regularly
The purpose of the Convention on Biological Diversity is
to ensure that this genetic material is preserved for the
future. The Cartagena Protocol came about because of fears
that the release of genetically modified organisms might contaminate
the world's genetic resources.
The Protocol has been signed by 103 countries though many,
including Canada, have yet to ratify the agreement. Ratification
is the formal step that turns the agreement from good intentions
into reality. The U.S. has neither signed nor ratified.
The Cartagena Protocol forces exporters to provide detailed
information about the contents and potential environmental
risks of any GM shipments before a destination country is
required to accept it. Providing this would be a very costly
procedure. If the receiving country is not satisfied with
the information, it can refuse the shipments. The Protocol
does not discuss levels of contamination, so even small amounts
could result in refusal to accept products.
The very large difference between WTO rules and the Cartagena
Protocol is that the Protocol allows countries to use the
precautionary principle. The precautionary principle says
that if there is no proof of safety, a country can err on
the side of caution. The WTO principle is the opposite: if
harm cannot be proven, a product is deemed safe. The problem
with the WTO stand is that much harm can occur before science
conclusively proves something is harmful.
In the case of GM organisms, once these genes are released
into the environment, we cannot take them back. In one sense,
it is like the release of animals into an environment where
they did not before exist. This practice was common one and
two centuries ago. That is how rabbits got to Australia and
English sparrows to North America. Mexico claims that genes
from GM corn have turned up in its heirloom varieties of corn.
Mexico is the genetic home of corn and the world's main source
of new corn genetics.
The Cartagena Protocol is sure to cause many clashes with
the WTO as countries use the Protocol to keep out GM products
and exporters like the U.S. try to use the WTO to get them
in. Farmers need to keep this firmly in mind as Monsanto continues
pressure to release GM wheat.
© Paul Beingessner, firstname.lastname@example.org . The author
is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation
farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.