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Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology - An International Food Fight

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In January 2000, after participating in the negotiation of the International BioSafety Protocol, a treaty developed by the UN Convention on biological diversity in which all signatories concurred that GM crops are significantly different from traditional crops, the United States refused to join other countries in signing. Known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to honor the country of Colombia, which hosted the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Cartagena in 1999, the treaty aims to ensure the safe transfer, handling, and use of living modified organisms (LMOs)—such as genetically engineered plants, animals, and microbes—across international borders. The Biosafety Protocol is also intended to prevent adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity without unnecessarily disrupting world food trade. By participating in the treaty negotiations, the U.S. government formally acknowledged that GM crops are not, as many government agencies had previously maintained, "substantially equivalent" to traditional crops.

The BioSafety Protocol provides countries the opportunity to obtain information before new bioengineered organisms are imported. It acknowledges each country's right to regulate bioengineered organisms, subject to existing international obligations. It also aims to improve the capacity of developing countries to protect biodiversity. The Protocol does not, however, cover processed food products or address the safety of GM food for consumption. Instead, the protocol is intended to protect the environment from the potential effects of introducing bioengineered products (referred to in the treaty as living modified organisms). Its most immediate impact on agricultural trade will be on seeds exported for planting, which will be part of an Advance Informed Agreement procedure. This means that before such seeds can be shipped for the first time, the importing country must approve the shipment. If the seeds are approved for import, they will need documentation specifying their identity and traits. This formalizes the steps that seed and biotech companies currently undertake in countries where they want to sell seed.

Although U.S. supermarket shelves remain stocked with GM foods, European consumers and farmers have nearly driven genetically engineered foods and crops out of the European Union (EU) market, the largest in the world. U.S. corn exports to the EU have plummeted from more than $350 million a year during the mid-1990s to near zero in 2000. Similarly, soybean exports have fallen off and are expected to fall even further as major food processors, supermarkets, and fast-food chains ban GE (genetically engineered) soy or soy derivatives in animal feeds.

Europeans were so wary of GM foods that, beginning in 1998, the EU Commission and member states unofficially began a suspension on imports of "biotech foods." At the onset of the ban, EU Commission officials advised the United States they would resume the approval process once companies submitting applications agreed to abide by newly proposed revisions to the approval procedures before they become law. Although applicant companies agreed to comply voluntarily with the new procedures, the EU approval process did not resume as promised.

Consumer rejection of GM foods spread to Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, India, and other nations. In May 2000 the Tokyo Grain Exchange soy futures market began to offer wholesale traders a choice of genetically engineered or conventional soybeans. On the first day of trading, 914,000 tons of conventional soybeans were purchased, compared to only 364,000 tons of genetically engineered soybeans. Beginning in 2001 Japan's Ministry of Health required all agricultural producers to screen imported GM foods for potential food allergies and other health hazards, and strengthened mandatory labeling rules on GM food ingredients. The labeling mandate has prompted many Japanese importers and manufacturers of food products, such as tofu and corn products, to resume use of nongenetically engineered ingredients. The Japanese and South Korean markets are especially important to U.S. biotechnology companies because they purchase more than $11 billion of U.S. agricultural exports every year.

Consumer rejection also persists in Australia, where in February 2005 opposition to GM crops forced the country's poultry producers to stop feeding GM soy feed to the 450 million birds they sell each year. The Australian government has been actively trying to convince Australian consumers to welcome GM crops, and the country's farmers fear that they will suffer economic consequences if they cannot compete with farmers using genetically modified organisms (Michael Byrnes, "Australia Struggles to Win Support for GMO Crops," Reuters, March 9, 2005).

Europe Bans Biotech Foods and Halts U.S. Trade

In June 1999 EU members called for an official moratorium on new approvals of agricultural biotech products. The EU Environmental Council contended that administration of new approvals should be linked to new labeling rules for biotech foods. Ministers from Denmark, France, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg vowed to suspend approvals until new rules were established. A year later the EU environmental ministers moved to continue the moratorium at least until the commission prepared proposals for labeling and for tracing minute amounts of biotech products in foods such as vegetable and corn oils. The commission assured the United States that it would develop its proposal by the end of 2000 and promptly resume the approval process.

The traceability and labeling requirements were not presented until July 2001, when the commission promised to lift the moratorium within weeks. At an October 2001 meeting of the Environmental Council, eight member states (France, Austria, Finland, Luxembourg, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden) rejected the commission's plan and notified the United States that the new regulations must be in force before they would permit reinstitution of the approval process. The U.S. government complained that it was unlikely that the commission's traceability and labeling proposals would be implemented before 2004.

On October 17, 2001, Margot Wallstrom, the EU environment commissioner, decried the prolonged moratorium and stated, "I have stopped guessing when the moratorium would be lifted. We have put in place the legal framework … but some member states are opposed to genetically modified organisms and they will try to move the goal posts. They will try to find another obstacle." Finally, in December 2002 the council arrived at a consensus position on traceability and labeling legislation. Regardless, Denmark declared that the moratorium should remain in place until the EU has developed and implemented special environmental liability legislation for biotech products.

Frustrated by the delays and effects of these sanctions, the USDA determined that the EU moratorium on agricultural biotech products violated international law. The USDA argued that:

  • The EU has pursued policies that undermine the development and use of agricultural biotechnology.
  • In the late 1990s six member states (Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Luxembourg) violated European law when they banned imports of corn and rapeseed approved by the EU, and the EU Commission did not challenge the bans.
  • In 1998 member states began to block EU regulatory approval for new agricultural biotech products. The moratorium prohibited most U.S. corn exports from entering Europe and violated EU law.
  • The ban also breached WTO rules, which do not require automatic approval of biotech foods. The WTO requires that measures regulating imports be based on "sufficient scientific evidence" and that countries operate regulatory approval procedures without "undue delay."

The United States asked the EU to apply a scientific, rules-based review and approval process to agricultural biotech product applications. The United States contends that it is not attempting to force European consumers to accept biotech foods or products. Instead, it denounces Europe's actions, which it considers whimsical rather than based on scientific, health, or environmental evidence, as depriving consumers of choice.

In 2003 the United States, Argentina, Canada, and Egypt filed a WTO dispute against the EU, contesting its five-year moratorium on approving agricultural biotech products. Other countries that expressed support for the WTO case against the EU were Australia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, and Uruguay. On May 13, 2003, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick publicly expressed the nation's sentiments when he stated, "The EU's persistent resistance to abiding by its WTO obligations has perpetuated a trade barrier unwarranted by the EC's own scientific analysis, which impedes the global use of a technology that could be of great benefit to farmers and consumers around the world."

In 2004 Europe's moratorium on GM foods came to an end when the European Commission agreed to import worm-resistant GM corn known as BT-11 developed by the Swiss firm Syngenta. In a May 19, 2004, press release, David Byrne, the EU health commissioner charged with food safety, said "GM sweet corn has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world. It has been scientifically assessed as being as safe as any conventional maize—food safety is therefore not an issue, it is a question of consumer choice." Environmentalists hoped that European consumers would reject the GM corn, and by early 2005 there were indications of consumer resistance to the GM corn. In April 2004 the EU implemented stringent new labeling and traceability legislation for genetically modified food, feed, and ingredients in April 2004. The strict new rules, which apply to the world's largest single market, will have a dramatic impact on the future market of all genetically modified crops, vegetables, fruits, food, and feed products derived from GMOs.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Enters into Force

In September 2003 the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety entered into force, empowering the more than 100 countries that ratified the protocol to bar imports of live genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that they believe carry environmental or health risks. If the government of the importing country has concerns about safety it can ask the exporting country to provide a risk assessment. The Protocol also called for a central online database of information on risks.

Although the Protocol was acknowledged as an important first step in the protection of biodiversity, environmental advocacy groups including Greenpeace cautioned that there are still important unresolved issues for the international community, such as the amount of information required on shipments of GM crops. More important, the United States, Argentina, and Canada—the countries that produce about 90% of GE crops in the world—have not ratified the Protocol.

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