Special report: Global biotech battle heats up in Montreal

Related tags Genetically modified food

A transatlantic trade dispute over genetically modified food will
come to the fore over the next 10 days in Montreal, Canada, where
government, civic and business representatives are gathering for a
second round of international negotiations on biotechnology.
Ahmed ElAmin reports.

About 800 representatives from around the world are due for the second round of negotiations on the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety​, from 25 May to 3 June. Among them will be representatives of the food processing, shipping and the agricultural sectors. The main decision-making meeting begins on 30 May.

Biotechnology lies at the centre of debates on the future of world agriculture, on international trade relations, on how to protect biological diversity, on the role of multinational corporations, globalisation, and, in the end, on whether consumers can have confidence in the food they eat. It means multinational food processors will have to walk carefully and carry a lot of lawyers when venturing into this new world, because all of the restrictions being put into place exposes them to risk and liability.

Proponents say biotech advances will help alleviate world hunger, give developing countries the chance to become competitive agricultural exporters and be better for the environment by reducing the need for herbicides and pesticides. They say biotechnology, in particular genetically modified (GM) food, is not harmful to human health and is safe for the environment.

Critics, who include some of the proponents of biotech, say not enough study has been done on genetically manipulated food and that its introduction into the food chain may destroy biological diversity on the planet. Civic critics also claim that biotechnology will give multinationals too much power over farmers.

The debate at this meeting will focus on the costs and logistics involved in the handling, transport, packaging and identification of genetically modified (GM) food and agricultural exports. A related point of friction is the issue of segregating GM from non-GM commodities during storage and transport, a task which shipping companies claim is impossible or too costly.

The battle mainly pits the US, which mainly does not want any restrictions placed on exports of GM foods, against the EU countries, which have the toughest requirements in the world controlling their movement and identification. The US and food producers in both North America and the EU contend the restrictions are unenforceable since the tests to detect GM products are not reliable to the degree required and are onerous to traders.

The US remains the last major holdout on signing the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a part of the Convention on Biological Diversity that became effective in September 2003 and has been ratified by 120 countries. China, one of the largest importers of GM crops, signed the protocol last week, giving added political momentum to the issue.

China is the world's largest soybean importer with 2004 imports amounting to 20.2m tonnes, of which Greenpeace says more than 70 per cent is thought to be genetically modified. China is also the world's largest GMO cotton grower.

The Cartagena Protocol applies to the transboundary movement, transit, handling and use of all living modified organisms (GMO) that may adversely affect biological diversity and human health. The protocol requires exporters to give detailed information to recipient nations about GMO products. It also gives importers the right to reject GMO imports or donations — even without scientific proof — if they might pose a danger to traditional crops and indigenous societies.

Such restrictions run contrary to agreements signed under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) treaties, say the US and Canada, two of the largest exporters of GM products. Canada signed the protocol in 2002 but has no plan to ratify it. The US has not signed the protocol and has no plans to do so. The US, Canada and Argentina have filed cases against the EU's requirements with the WTO.

With economic and political considerations clouding the debate, the EU’s go-slow policy contrasts with the US’ eagerness to put products on the market. The US is the largest trader in GM foods and it wants to develop the market. EU countries, with their powerful farmers’ unions and activist consumers, want to restrict the use of GM seed, food and products, or at least have it clearly labelled.

The EU requires that all food be tracked and labelled if it contains 0.9 per cent or more traceable GM content, along with derivatives such as paste and ketchup from a GM tomato. Products derived from GM processing aids, such as GM enzymes or yeast, are not affected. Meanwhile cheese, wine and beer derived from GMOs are not affected by the labelling, products which are top EU exports, note critics of the requirements.

One main strand of the debate concerns the identification and tracing of plant parts in food, especially products made from a wide mix of ingredients. The technology and a reasonable logistics system is in place to tag and trace the movement of animals. However tracing the genetic origins of a plant is much more difficult.

New labelling rules on GMOs entered into force in the EU last year, propelling an end to the moratorium on GM ingredients. Since then only two products have been cleared for import: a GM sweetcorn supplied by Swiss biotech firm Syngenta and Monsanto’s MON810 biotech maize, engineered to be resistant to the European corn borer.

Last week, food and feed experts from EU member states voted against​ allowing Monsanto to import Mon 863 maize to the bloc.

The US contends that testing systems are not reliable enough to detect such a low percentage of GMO in a food product and that exporters will be exposed to risk and liability in selling to the EU.

To say the debate is political as well as economic would be an understatement. The US claims the EU restrictions worsen world food hunger and holds back the development of biotech products.

The EU counter-accuses the US of using world hunger to further its own commercial interests in biotechnology and argues that many developing countries share the EU’s reservations regarding GMOs. The EU claims that its new regulations are in line with the Biosafety Protocol and the recommendations of Codex Alimentarius, the UN food safety body. GM technology is also the target of a global protest movement including non-governmental organisations, civic associations and international bodies.

Meanwhile developing countries remain caught between the two debates, on one hand needing the increased crop yields and higher nutritional content that biotechnology promises, on the other, wary of being caught in the grip of the multinationals who produce GM seed.

Developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Mexico, and South Africa are at the forefront of biotechnology research, according to a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation​ (FAO). The report covers both GM crops and non-GM biotechnologies, and indicates developing countries will soon have new crops available, such as virus-resistant papaya, rice tolerant to abiotic stresses (salinity and drought), and soybeans with improved oil composition.

Several developing countries have been conducting research on a wider range of crops, such as banana, cassava, rice, and sorghum, and on traits relevant for food security, such as abiotic stress tolerance and quality. About 85 per cent of GMO research in developing countries is concentrated in Latin America and Asia. About 35 per cent of research projects cover pathogen-resistant crops, 20 per cent are concerned with pest resistance and 16 per cent are on quality traits and herbicide resistance.

Most of the GMOs commercialised so far in developing countries have been acquired from developed countries and focus on a limited number of traits, mainly herbicide tolerance and insect pest resistance, and crops such as cotton, soybean and maize, the FAO report found.

Biotechnology, in its technical sense, refers to plant and animal farming techniques that alter living organisms to make or modify food products. There are many possible products from transgenic plants, plant parts, and processed foodstuffs, including highly refined substances such as vegetable oil containing little or no detectable transgene-derived protein or DNA.

Under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, governments will signal whether or not they are willing to accept imports of agricultural commodities that include GMOs by communicating their decision via an Internet-based Biosafety Clearing House​.

According to news reports Canada has also taken the step of refusing an entry visa to Africa's leading expert on GM foods so he can attend the meeting in Montreal, the headquarters for the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, from Ethiopia, is Africa's chief negotiator for the Cartagena Protocol.

With all the contending parties gathering this week, the debate in Montreal is sure to be heated. In the battle for the consumer, food processors and producers are watching closely.

Related topics Processing & packaging

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