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Countries clash over GMO trade

(Friday, Feb. 27, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Associated Press, 02/26/04: KUALA LUMPUR -- Europe and developing countries clashed with the U.S. Thursday about the global trade in genetically modified commodities, with the former demanding strict labeling and liability laws and the latter seeking looser guidelines.

As a five-day conference on biotechnology safety neared its conclusion, government officials, scientists and environmentalists from more than 80 nations remained mired in disputes about whether gene-spliced crops might benefit -- or befoul -- human health and the environment.

Meanwhile, Mexico said it was banning imports of some genetically engineered maize -- a decision that could affect its imports from the U.S., a key exporter of biologically altered foods.

Divisions at the conference surfaced in nearly every discussion on how to implement the U.N. Cartagena Protocol, which aims to protect Earth's diversity of life from biotechnology's possible risks by ensuring countries receive enough information to let them accept or reject gene-modified imports.

U.S. officials said identification papers accompanying bio-engineered shipments meant for release into the environment - such as new varieties of corn for cultivation - shouldn't have to include details on how they have been genetically modified. India and Iran disagreed.

Swiss delegate Francois Pythoud, who chaired talks on the transport of biotech goods, expressed hopes that before the conference ends Friday, delegates might agree on "compromise language" for texts that suggest how shipments should be packaged and identified.

Ethiopia and other African nations called for a legally binding international regime that allows people to seek compensation from exporters if gene-modified organisms contaminate their environment or damage their health. But many countries refused to debate legalities for now.

Environmentalist groups accused biotech crop producers that haven't ratified the Cartagena Protocol -- such as the U.S. and Canada -- of undermining the treaty by trying to persuade other countries to sign separate agreements with them on biotech shipping procedures.

Mexico, which has ratified the protocol, last October signed a tripartite accord with the U.S. and Canada that activists claim barely fulfills some of the protocol's minimum requirements.

Victor Manuel Arambula, executive secretary of Mexico's biosafety commission, said Thursday his country was banning imports of maize engineered for nonagricultural purposes, such as producing proteins and chemicals used in pharmaceutical products and plastic.

The ban -- which takes effect immediately -- aims to prevent any genetic contamination of maize cultivated in Mexico for food, Arambula told reporters. Mexico last year imported 5.6 million metric tons of yellow corn, mostly from the U.S.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Doreen Stabinsky said the announcement was "insignificant" because Mexico doesn't import any of the maize it is banning. She accused Mexican officials of trying to deflect attention from the criticism it has attracted over its trilateral agreement.