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Nations agree to new rules for labeling genetically engineered foods

Editor's note: Two news releases follow this wire story. -- RS

(Sunday, Feb. 29, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Sean Yoong, Associated Press, 02/27/04: KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Europe and developing countries claimed a partial victory over the United States on Friday when a conference of 80 nations agreed to new rules for the labeling of genetically modified commodity shipments despite U.S. objections.

The United States expressed frustration, saying other countries rushed into decisions that might disrupt international trade.

"Our biggest disappointment is that countries are moving down a path away from practical steps very quickly in a direction that could have consequences," said Deborah Malac, chief of the U.S. State Department's Biotechnology Trade Policy Division.

Government officials wrapped up the conference on biotech safety with what they hoped would be a major step toward enforcing global trade rules for biologically altered foods by late 2005.

The European-led bloc successfully lobbied for more detailed information to be contained in identification papers that accompany bio-engineered shipments - a move the United States, the world's largest exporter of biologically altered food, argued was unnecessary.

Countries also agreed to set up an expert group to negotiate an international liability regime that lets people seek compensation from biotech exporters if transgenic organisms contaminate their environment or harm their health.

The measures form the basis for implementing the U.N. Cartagena Protocol, which aims to protect biological diversity by ensuring exporters give enough information about gene-altered products so that countries can choose whether to reject them.

Washington was allowed to voice its opinions - but not participate in making decisions - because it has not signed the protocol, which 86 countries and the European Union have ratified.

Most governments are expected to set up new facilities to evaluate genetically altered shipments and specialized customs offices to enforce the protocol's requirements by September 2005.

The United States tussled repeatedly with Europe, Africa and many developing nations about key implementation issues throughout five days of talks in Kuala Lumpur. It was the first time countries formally discussed the protocol since it came into force last September.

Progress was glacial, but delegates managed to hammer out crucial compromises by Friday morning, especially in the most contentious issue of how much details should be included on labels and identification papers for transgenic shipments.

Officials agreed that documents should contain the scientific name and characteristics of genetically modified ingredients.

The U.S. delegation, which argued that specific labeling is unnecessary and would hinder trade, complained about the outcome.

"We came here in a cooperative spirit to find a rational way forward," Malac said. "We believe we are still very much at risk of running into countries implementing laws and regulations that might create a lot of unpredictability."

But Christoph Bail, head of Global Biodiversity in the European Environment Commission, said the European Union was satisfied, especially by winning commitment from countries that they will try to comply with protocol obligations.

"We are pleased, we have achieved our objectives," Bail said. "The message that has been sent to the U.S. is that we are firm to make this protocol work. The message is, please do not try to undermine the protocol."

Environmentalists criticized the compromise for not making other details compulsory as well, such as how the products had been altered.

"These requirements are not sufficient to protect the environment and the food chain from contamination," said Greenpeace spokeswoman Doreen Stabinsky. "But they are an important first step that governments should implement immediately."

Two news releases

1. 87 Countries Agree to New International Protections from Genetic Contamination Agreement Will Force U.S. Exporters To Label GE Foods

Kristin Dawkins, 612-870-3410, kdawkins@iatp.org
Dennis Olson, dolson@iatp.org

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Eighty-seven countries reached an historic agreement here today that takes concrete steps towards establishing new, internationally recognized rights to protect public health, sustainable agricultural production and the environment from genetic contamination caused by international trade in genetically engineered (GE) organisms.

"Although the steps taken were modest - addressing liability, labeling and information-sharing related to the international shipping of GE organisms - the consensus reached by the parties to the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety represented a sharp rebuff to the Bush Administration's intensive behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to undermine the treaty through a coalition of the bribed and bullied," said Dennis Olson of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, referring to a few countries like Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina who often acted as US proxies during the five days of negotiations.

The U.S. has refused to sign the treaty, but nevertheless sent a large lobbying delegation that worked hand-in-hand with industry lobbyists, and other major GE exporting countries, to oppose language in the treaty that would strengthen the legal standing and capacity of countries to prevent the illegal entry of unapproved GE organisms into their farm fields, environment and food supply. "The delegates deserve much praise for withstanding the relentless U.S. led pressure to water down the treaty, and for sticking to their guns to protect the health of their citizens, the rights of their farmers, and the integrity of their ecosystems," Olson said.

"The U.S. wanted to prevent any further specificity in the type of documentation that could be required of importers under the Protocol to identify genetically engineered organisms entering another country," said Olson. For example, the U.S. tried to restrict the treaty language to require anything beyond a commercial invoice from the shipping company that simply stated that a shipment "may contain" genetically engineered organisms. This "may contain" language was negotiated in the initial treaty - but also mandated the reconsideration of this limited requirement at the meeting held this week. The final language allows for countries to require a more detailed stand alone document.

The treaty now also delineates another key piece of information an importing country may require: a description of the "transformation event code" of the GE organism being imported. The U.S. tried to block this language, which would have made it much more difficult to trace the GE organism back to the biotech company who created it. Allowing this transformation event code to be used will make it easier to assess liability when GE organisms are illegally imported into a country and cause damage to human health, agricultural production (e.g., organic production), or the environment.

A 15-member committee has been established to monitor compliance with the protocol, while a group of legal and technical experts will develop regulations by 2008 covering liability and redress for damages resulting from trans-boundary movements of genetically engineered organisms.

Olson also criticized the Bush Administration for lobbying almost exclusively on behalf of the biotech industry at the expense of many U.S. farmers who oppose further expansion of GE crops.

"Many U.S. wheat farmers oppose the introduction of Monsanto's GE wheat out of respect for their customers in Europe and Asia who have said that they don't want it," Olson noted. "Additionally, organic farmers face being put completely out of business from unchecked GE contamination of their crops, and they represent the fastest growing agricultural sector in the United States. The Bush Administration failed to represent the interests of these farmers in its all out effort on behalf of multinational biotech corporations to undermine this landmark protocol."

The treaty appears to give the European Union some cover in a World Trade Organization (WTO) case filed by the U.S. regarding genetically engineered foods. That case, expected to be decided sometime this summer, challenges the EU's tough regulatory system for GE foods. The Biosafety Protocol re-asserts nations rights to regulate and reject GE foods for import.

More information on the Biosafety Protocol can be found at the United Nations Environment Program web page:


The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

US-Inspired Trilateral Agreement Condones GM Contamination and Undermines Biosafety Protocol

2. Argentina Announces Corporate Welfare for Monsanto

by ETC Group

As negotiations come to a head in Kuala Lumpur at the first meeting of the Biosafety Protocol of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) the United States along with Canada and a few Latin American states seem poised to render the 86-nation agreement irrelevant. News earlier this week that the Argentine Government has offered to collect taxes from its GM soybean farmers in lieu of royalty payments has stunned many delegations attending the meeting in the Malaysian capital. The announcement comes as the United States, Mexico and Canada are pressing governments to adopt their Trilateral Agreement. The agreement sets the actionable level for GM contamination at a whopping five percent. At that level of tolerance, Mexico's maize crop would be riddled with foreign DNA from the Rio Grande to Guatemala in less than a decade. Last month, Brazil bowed to pressure from Monsanto and agreed that soybean crushers and processors in Rio Grande do Sul should collect seed royalties for Monsanto. Now, Argentina proposes to tax its own farmers and collect an estimated $34 million in royalties for Monsanto and other seed companies because Monsanto claims farmers are illegally replanting harvested seed and infringing its patents.

The Argentine proposal collapses one of the major tenets of patent regimes. "Argentina is saying that it will police the patent system for Monsanto," says Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group, "The police and the courts will be used against farmers." Until now, companies have argued that the beauty of the patent system is that it is civil law where the costs of obtaining and defending patents are borne by the patent-holders at no cost to the state. "This pushes patents into the realm of criminal law," argues Ribeiro, who is attending the Kuala Lumpur meeting.

"Meanwhile, if governments agree to accept the Trilateral Agreement's standard of 5 percent contamination, there will be no need for the Biosafety Protocol at all. Contamination will be everywhere in a matter of years," says Hope Shand, ETC's Research Director based in the USA. "Monsanto, the USA, and Argentina will press other states to accept the tax-based approach to royalty payments," Shand explains, "Then comes the triple whammy - governments will find it cheaper to promote the use of Terminator technology rather than act as an unpopular royalty-collector for the Gene Giants." Terminator technology renders GM seed sterile, forcing farmers to buy new seed each growing season. It amounts to a biological patent without a time limitation. "Most governments and the Biodiversity Convention stand firmly against Terminator, " notes Shand, "But the USA, Brazil and Argentina have been working to undermine opposition at the CBD. Faced with the choice of either collecting roy! alty taxes or allowing Terminator, some governments are likely to cave in."

The full text is available at: http://www.etcgroup.org