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Agreement reached on biotechnology trade

By MICHAEL SMITH

UPI Science News

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MONTREAL, January 29 (UPI) -- After nearly two days of non-stop negotiating, representatives from 130 nations Saturday morning hammered out a treaty governing the trade in genetically engineered organisms.

The delegates, under the auspices of the United Nations Convention on Biodiversity, wrote up an agreement that allows countries to refuse entry to what it calls "living modified organisms" -- plants or animals that have been changed by the addition of new genes -- but stresses that the reasons must be based on science.

And it does not require mandatory labeling of all food products that are derived from genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). Instead, products such as bulk corn or soybeans will have documentation saying shipments "may contain" GMOs.

The protocol also contains a "savings clause" that states it does not override obligations under other treaties, especially the free trade rules governed by the World Trade Organization.

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The historic agreement -- the first time there has been a treaty to govern biotechnology products -- came nearly a year after earlier talks collapsed due to opposition to a proposed treaty from the U.S., Canada and several other agricultural exporters.

After the agreement was reached at 5 a.m., all sides were claiming victory.

The so-called biosafety protocol "is a major improvement" over the version rejected in Cartagena, said Frank Loy, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs, and head of the American delegation.

Loy added the agreement "is not perfect. The key to its success will lie in its implementation."

Spokesmen for protesters who surrounded the week-long negotiations, chanting and staging theatrical anti-biotechnology demonstrations, also said the deal is satisfactory. Michael Khoo of Greenpeace Canada called the agreement "a historic step towards protecting the environment and consumers from the dangers of genetic engineering."

The biotechnology industry also was happy.

"The protocol represents significant progress for biotechnology, while protecting biodiversity," said Joyce Groote, head of the Global Industry Coalition, which represents approximately 2,200 biotechnology companies worldwide.

During the intense negotiations this week, Canada spoke for countries known as the Miami Group of agricultural exporting nations -- the United States, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Chile and Uruguay.

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Late Friday night, the talks appeared to be deadlocked, according to Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson, who was leading the negotiations for the Miami group. Conference chairman Juan Mayr Maldonano, Columbia's environment minister, was "prepared to declare defeat," Anderson said.

But at 10 p.m., the Canadian minister arranged a last-ditch meeting with the representatives of the European Union to find wording on some key clauses that would save the deal.

"There were some very tart words exchanged," said Anderson. But the efforts at breaking the deadlock began.

In the end, the Europeans yielded ground on the contentious issue of labeling GMOs, conceding that it is impossible to segregate and label bulk products such as corn and soybeans.

"You can't label every grain of corn," Anderson said.

The deal now requires exporters to include a notice that such bulk commodities "may contain" products derived from GMOS.

The Miami Group yielded on the so-called "precautionary principle" that would allow countries to reject GMOs because of fears they might be harmful to the environment or health. The group wanted the reference to health removed, and argued it should not be part of an agreement on biodiversity.

The biosafety protocol still must be ratified by 50 countries that have already signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.

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Because the U.S. Senate has not ratified the convention, the United States had no official standing in Montreal and is not technically bound to honor it.

Genetically modified organisms have been around for decades -- mainly involved in producing new or improved pharmaceuticals, such as insulin. But those GMOs were bacteria, which were confined to sterile lab environments.

The first genetically-modified food -- a tomato dubbed the Flavr-Savr -- went on sale only in 1994. It had been engineered, using a reversed copy of one of its own genes, to have a longer shelf life after it was picked.

Since then, dozens of crops have been modified, usually to resist pests or a specific herbicide. About 40 per cent of the soybeans grown in the United States, for instance, now contain a gene that allows the plant to resist a popular herbicide. This allows farmers to spray their crops with the chemical, killing weeds but not affecting the soybeans.

Corn, cotton, and canola are three other major crops that have undergone genetic modification.

North American consumers have been largely unconcerned by the new technology, but Europeans have been up in arms.

Protesters have forced supermarket chains to remove foods made from genetically modified corn and other crops, activists have torn up test crops and blockaded shipments of soybeans, and even Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, has declared that GMOs are intruding on God's turf.

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