The beginning of the end?
The international agreement on a biosafety protocol at Montreal may be
the first sign that biotech is having have to admit reality. The agreement,
a major victory for Europe and for common sense, covers food, seeds, animal
feeds and medicine. Imports may be restricted on the basis of "sound science"
and GM products must carry general labelling saying that the products 'may
contain GM organisms.' The GM grain producers, the US, Canada and four
other grain-producing nations had argued that such limits would break the
World Trade Organisation's free trade rules but, after protracted negotiations,
the 133 nations at the Montreal conference agreed that the new bio-safety
protocol would have equal status with WTO regulations.
Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr announced the breakthrough
agreement just before dawn. "The adoption of this protocol represents a
victory for the environment," Mr Mayr said. "But don't forget that this
only represents the beginning. We have still before us a great challenge."
The UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, said that for the first time
the principle of caution about GM foods was anchored in an international
agreement. Margot Wallstrom, the European Environmental Commissioner, said
that the Montreal protocol was a victory for consumers and importers and
an agreement of which all countries could be proud.
Nations will be able to restrict imports of GM products if they fear
that these products may harm human health or get into the environment and
damage it. Foodstuffs, as well as seeds for farmers and feed for animals,
are covered. The agreement will take effect only after 50 nations have
ratified it. It also requires countries to begin negotiations on more specific
labelling requirements to take effect no later than two years after the
protocol enters into force. The protocol calls for further talks on an
international framework for determining which parties are liable if a GM
product causes environmental damage.
"This is a historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers
from the dangers of genetic engineering," Benedikt Haerlin of Greenpeace
said in a statement. "These minimum safety standards must be implemented
immediately," he said. "And until the protocol has come into force all
exports of GMOs should be prohibited." Friends of the Earth in a separate
statement also heralded the agreement. "For the past week the United States
and its cronies have been holding the rest of the world to ransom to protect
the vested interests of a few companies," it said. "They have not succeeded
and now we have a protocol to regulate genetically modified crops and foods."
Britain's biggest ban GM feeds
Sun Valley Foods and Moy Park, which between them produce
1.6 million chickens a week, have both gone GM-free. And another major
poultry producer, Grampian Foods, is considering following suit. Ironically,
Sun Valley is owned by Cargill Foods, which continues to bring GM soya
"Since last May Sun Valley have only been sourcing soya
meal from Brazil which is principally non-GM soya" said Cargill. "This
is their sole source of soya going into all their poultry production for
all their customers. It has been done at the request of some of their customers
who have asked them not to use GM soya meal in animal feed."
Tesco reject biotest veg
In a well-meaning, but ultimately embarrassing, move Tesco
instructed its fruit and vegetable suppliers not to grow crops on sites
used for testing genetically modified crops. "We need to be able to assure
our customers that no material from GM crop trials could come in contact
with our crops. Therefore any crop grown for Tesco must not be grown in
a field that has been used for GM trial crops."
Welcomed by GM activists, the decision was scorned by
the Cabinet Office as a "marketing ploy" and pointed out that Tesco was
talking to suppliers of fruit and vegetables and trial farms were unlikely
to be involved in these products.
Eventually Tesco had to backtrack, an example of just
how sensitive GM policy is still.
The Swiss cabinet has decided against banning release
of genetically modified organisms. GMO's will still be subject to a permit
system. There is a major controversy between Switzerland's established
pharmaceutical industry and environmentalists, some consumer groups and
farmers. In 1998, Swiss voters rejected by a two-to-one vote a referendum
which would have outlawed production of transgenetic animals and would
have forbidden release of genetically altered plants and animals into the
The Vatican has confirmed its support for GM technology.
"I have stopped all those who demand condemnation of these (GM) products,"
said Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Vatican director of Bioethics and vice-president
of the Pontifical Academy of Life. He emphasized that biotechnological
research could resolve global problems such as hunger since it enables
agricultural productivity even in arid lands. Another PAL fellow, Giuseppe
Bertoni, criticized the "catastrophic sensationalism" of press reports
that substantially contribute to biotechnology's current infamous image.
"It's true that ethical limits must be respected but, above all, the reality
of biotechnology must be known," said Bertoni. "If you know biotechnology,
you don't fear it."
In the United States farmers expect to make a major
reduction in plantings of genetically modified soybeans, corn and cotton
this year, partly in response to a European backlash against bioengineered
foods, a Reuters straw poll found. 400 farmers were surveyed and said they
planned reductions of 15 percent in sowings of RoundUp Ready soybeans,
22 percent for RoundUp Ready corn, 24 percent for Bt corn and 26 percent
for Bt cotton. The only exception to the overall decline in biotech plantings
was a 5 percent increase in planned sowings of RoundUp Ready cotton.
Thailand is not fertile territory for the biotech
industry. Opposition to GM products in Thailand, a leading world commodities
exporter, has led to import bans on over 40 Bt agricultural items. "It's
one of the toughest tasks we have ever been through, attempting to convince
the government on the safety standards of BT cotton," said Sanya Bhumichitra,
general manager for the agricultural sector of Monsanto Thailand. "Considering
the lengthy process of screening BT cotton, I believe it would take years
for the government to deregulate its existing ban on BT corn," he said.
Why care about genetically modified crops? Read this
Check out these links:
on wildlife risks
Nature policy paper
The Royal Society:
Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use
Link: Food under the Microscope
UK contacts for raising
questions about Genetically Modified Food
New Scientist international
Food Biotechnology Communications
Monsanto UK: Knowledge Centre
Briefing: Assessing the threat to biodiversity on the farm
Society of America
US National Center
for Food and Agricultural Policy