Biosafety Protocol: Transgenic shipments must be identified

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, February 27, 2004 (ENS): All international bulk shipments of genetically modified crops such as corn and soybeans intended for food, feed or processing must be identified as transgenic under a new system agreed by the 87 member governments of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Parties to the protocol wound up their first meeting here today.

The measure was adopted over the objections of the United States, which is not a signatory to the protocol, but which produces the majority of the world's genetically modified crops.

U.S. officials in Kuala Lumpur argued that identification papers accompanying shipments of new transgenic varieties of corn or soybeans meant for cultivation, should not have to specify details of how they have been engineered. Other countries except Canada and Argentina, also producers of transgenic crops, disagreed.

Deborah Malac, biotech division chief at the U.S. State Department, defended the benefits of genetic engineering. She told a news conference, "By simply closing the door on this technology and saying we can't use it, you shut off the possibilities of great potential benefit because there is demonstrated improvement in crop yields which can lead to improved farmers' income, better food security and productivity."

Environmentalists who believe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) contaminate traditional crops and cause health problems accused the producer countries of trying to subvert the protocol, and praised the other governments, including the European Union, for maintaining the strength of the agreement.

Friends of the Earth International spokesman Juan Lopez Villar said, “Governments committed to biosafety have risen above the attempts of the USA coalition to undermine the right of consumers, farmers and citizens to choose non-genetically modified crops and food."

"GMOs pose a real present danger to the environment, and the health and livelihoods of people around the world," Villar said. "Now we are up and running towards making biotechnology corporations liable for any GMO damage they cause."

The meeting's president, Malaysian Environment Minister Dato Seri Law, said the Parties successfully set a path for an operational and practical instrument on biosafety, ensuring protection against the potential adverse effects of engineered organisms without unduly impeding trade.

Representing the view of countries that are not Parties to the protocol, Thomas Roth and Peter Heyward of Australia expressed disappointment that the views of non-Parties were not taken into account in decision making and asked that the record establish that decisions of the meeting are not binding on other governments. Malac stressed that provisions for documentation requirements are voluntary for non-Parties.

The Biosafety Protocol was agreed in January 2000 to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms, known under the protocol as living modified organisms (LMOs), that may adversely effect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and human health.

The protocol entered into force in September 2003. It forms a part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), and this week's first meeting of Parties followed the Conference of Parties to the Convention which took place in Kuala Lumpur from February 9 through the 20.

Under the new system, all bulk shipments of genetically modified crop are to be identified as "may contain LMOs." The accompanying documentation should also indicate the contact details of the importer, exporter or other appropriate authority. Countries can refuse shipments if this information is not provided.

"Now that a system for identifying and labeling GMO exports has become operational, countries can enjoy the benefits of biotechnology with greater confidence while avoiding the potential risks," said Hamdallah Zedan, the protocol's executive secretary.

"This rigorous system for handling, transporting, packaging and identifying GMOs is in the best interests of everyone - developed and developing countries, consumers and industry, and all those who care deeply about our natural environment," Zedan said.

Over the next year an expert group will further elaborate the documentation and handling requirements for these bulk agricultural shipments. Key issues still to be resolved include the percentage of modified material that these shipments may contain and still be considered GMO free and the inclusion of any additional detailed information. A decision on these matters will be considered at the next meeting of the treaty's Parties, to be held in 2005.

In other decisions, a Working Group on liability for GMO damage has been created with a strong and clear mandate to complete the international rules and procedures for liability and redress by 2007. The United States objected to the text, but because the country is not a party to the protocol this objection was not taken into consideration by the chair.

To enforce compliance with the protocol, a 15 person committee has been created and will be effective immediately. Cases of noncompliance can be reported by other parties and will not depend solely on self reporting. The committee can issue warnings and publish cases of noncompliance. For persistent offenders stronger measures could be agreed on the basis of consensus in future meetings.

Other decisions adopted this week focus on making the Biosafety Clearing House fully functional. The Clearing House will enable governments to share information on GMOs, national legislation, and other critical matters.

Parties to the protocol agreed on implementing a comprehensive action plan to promote capacity building for developing countries, providing guidance to the protocol's financial mechanism on priorities, and establishing a work program for the protocol in the medium term.

This week's work is a good beginning, environmentalists said. "Those requirements are not sufficient to protect the environment and the food chain from contamination but they are an important first step that governments should implement immediately," said Doreen Stabinsky, head of the Greenpeace delegation in Kuala Lumpur.

Elsewhere, the Chinese government this week approved final safety certificates for the importation of biotech crops produced by Monsanto that are engineered to be tolerant of Monsanto herbicides. "American growers who plant biotech crops should know that yet another significant importing nation has recognized the safety of these products," said Jerry Hjelle, Ph.D., Monsanto's vice president of regulatory affairs.

Hjelle said that Monsanto received safety certificates for import of five commercial products in soybeans, corn, and cotton, thereby allowing farmers greater choice in how they produce their crops, control insects and decrease weeds.

The UK government is expected to approve within days the country's first genetically modified crop, a corn variety, for commercial growing, but many local councils do not share its enthusiasm for the technology.

The Hampshire County Council Wednesday voted to go GM free, bringing the total UK population living in areas with a GM free policy to 14 million, according to Friends of the Earth UK which is lobbying to block transgenic crops.

More than 40 local authorities have voted to remain free of engineered crops and foods - opposing the growing of engineered crops on council land and banning modified ingredients in their catering, such as school meals.


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