September 12, 2003: A new United Nations treaty went into
effect Thursday which stresses the precautionary principle
in regulating genetically modified (GM) crops. The treaty
reinforces the European Union regulatory system for GM crops
and runs into direct conflict with another international institution
- the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Earlier this year, the U.S. filed a legal challenge before
the WTO contesting Europe's right to place a moratorium on
some GMO food crops. The Biosafety Protocol reaffirms the
right of Europe, and other countries, to set their own regulations
for biotech crops.
September 11, 2003, certain provisions of the
Treaty will take effect immediately:
• Countries shipping LMOs for intentional
introduction into the environment will have to
give prior notification of the first shipment
to an importing country that is a party to the
Protocol under what is referred to as the "Advance
Informed Agreement" procedure. Sufficient
information will have to be provided to enable
importing countries to make informed decisions
on whether to accept the shipment.
• Member countries of the Protocol will
also be required to use the Biosafety Clearinghouse
(BCH) to fulfill a number of specific obligations.
The BCH is a largely Internet-based facility established
under the Protocol to ease communications and
exchange of information between the Parties.
• All shipments containing LMOs for intentional
introduction into the environment will be clearly
identified as such in the accompanying documentation
which must specify the identity and characteristics
of the specific LMOs contained in each shipment.
"The precautionary approach taken by this treaty will help participating
countries to utilize appropriate labeling requirements as
well as environmental and health safeguards when addressing
GMO foods," said Mark Ritchie, President of the Institute
for Agriculture and Trade Policy.
"Instead of working through the UN to set an international
floor of minimum standards that must be met around the world,
the U.S. is pushing for a ceiling at the WTO, which would
restrict nations from setting more rigorous safety standards.
The UN treaty should now become the international standard
for regulating GMOs – and the U.S. WTO challenge should
be immediately dropped."
The treaty is the first legally binding international agreement
governing the movement of living modified organisms (LMOs),
including genetically modified foods, across national borders.
The Protocol, agreed to by 131 countries in Montreal in 2000,
establishes the rights of national governments to regulate
all GMOs, while developing countries may use the Protocol
to regulate commodities even before national policies are
in place. Environmental, human health and socio-economic factors
are recognized as valid considerations in determining whether
to accept or reject GMO imports.
The passage of the Biosafety Protocol could have a major
impact on U.S. exports to nation's participating in the treaty.
Although the U.S. is not a party to the treaty, participating
nations can still enforce the treaty when handling imports
from non-participating countries.
The treaty will likely require all U.S. shipments to participating
countries of certain crops that have GMO varieties, like corn
and soybeans, to be labeled as “may contain” GMOs.
It also gives those nations the right to reject that shipment
if those GMOs have not been approved in that country. The
U.S. does not currently have an effective segregation system
between GMO and non-GMO - so it is unclear how this new treaty
will be implemented by U.S. shippers and importing countries.