Letter from Saskatchewan
Cartagena Protocol upholds genetic integrity;
on collision course with WTO and GMOs

By Paul Beingessner

Meet Paul

Saskatchewan farmer Paul Beingessner has missed only a handful of deadlines in writing a weekly column during the past eight years. He covers Canadian agriculture from a High Plains perspective. His straight-talk style informs readers about corporate influence in national and international agriculture, national ag politics on both sides of the border, and why some farmers do the things they do. Click here for more information about Paul.

TRUAX, 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 treaty.)

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 appear.

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, beingessner@sasktel.net . The author is a columnist, transportation consultant and third-generation farmer in Truax, Saskatchewan.