There have been a lot of goings-on in the world of agriculture since my last column and since I'm going to try to keep these columns a little more brief and to the point from now on I'm going to get right to it.
In January representatives from 130 countries met in Montreal and forged the first worldwide treaty regulating the trade of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a biosafety treaty. In the week long negotiations the U.S. representatives often stood alone in their defense and promotion of GMOs. They argued for the continuation of the lax trade restrictions as they feared that any tightening would result in the crippling of the world food trade and the loss of billions of dollars in potential exports for American agriculture. U.S. agriculture would be so greatly effected as it is heavily invested in genetically modified crops, crops that presently cover a quarter of American farmland. Through the negotiations almost all of the strict regulations that the U.S. representatives feared were lessened or eliminated completely. This left many of the other delegates particularly the European representatives feeling that the whole treaty had been fundamentally weakened.
While considerably weakened, the treaty is substantial in that it recognizes GMOs as something novel and distinct, something which needs to be controlled and regulated as such, a huge step indeed. Previously it seemed as though no lawmaker would acknowledge that genetically engineered food was in any way different or that it needed separate or distinct controls. The treaty also outlines the "precautionary principle", being significant in that it allows nations to err on the side of caution in protecting their people, to be able to bar the import of a GMO even if there isn't scientific evidence that proves that it is dangerous. This principle could possibly reinstate some national autonomy that has been eroded by World Trade Organization lawsuits, namely the European Union being sued by and having to pay huge sums of money to the U.S. Cattleman's Association because they refused to allow rBGH into their countries despite there not being any scientific evidence to back up their ban.
The last attempt at reaching an agreement on these biosafety issues in Cartegena, Columbia a year ago resulted in many delegates standing fast against the pro-GMO faction particularly the U.S. and Canada and leaving the bargaining table without an accord. They left with the statement that "no protocol is better than a bad protocol". While the Montreal treaty, officially the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety because the Montreal meeting was technically a continuation of the Colombian one, does have a few positive points I still believe it falls in the category of a "bad protocol". The agreement is very limited in scope and full of holes in the supposed "safety net". It is mostly concerned with the environmental concerns of releasing GMOs into the environment aiming at avoiding the possibility of genetically modified crop plants crossbreeding with wild relatives and creating superweeds or enhanced salmon outperforming their wild relatives for food and mates. It only contains some vague language about the risk to human health and doesn't address issues such as labeling packages of food containing GMOs. It deals only with concerns of international trading.
While the main thrust of the accord is how exporters must get permission from the importing country before they bring in a "living modified organism" meant to be released into the environment it doesn't require the same permission be sought for GMOs meant to be eaten or processed in the receiving country. The treaty also does not apply to human pharmaceuticals. It contains a huge loophole that does not require the advance permission if the GMO is intended for "contained use" like in a laboratory or research situation. The treaty still allows for the free flow of GMOs throughout the world, still refuses to let independent countries to decide whether they want GMOs within their borders and still lets consumers be uninformed about whether their box of corn flakes contains GMOs or not.
But what the accord does do (and why I believe that no protocol would have been better than this bad protocol) is provide the whole genetic engineering industry with an illusion of legitimacy, regulation and safety which is something it has been sorely missing. Even the wording of a statement issued by Steven J. Daugherty, a representative of the huge seed company Hi Bred International, "I think it will give some members of the public a stronger feeling that there is appropriate amounts of oversight." seems to concern itself more with the public's feeling of the oversight than any real protection provided by the treaty. The industry has been struggling against the public perception that GMOs are not being properly regulated. This biosafety treaty is one of the first steps towards countering that perception and a sign that is heralding the appearance of the second wave of genetic engineering on the horizon.
In the face of the negative public perception the introduction of new GMOs has slowed almost to a standstill. Seed companies sought approval for only six new varieties last year and eventually withdrew four of those. This is the fewest applications since 1993 and down from the highpoint of 14 in 1997. The seed companies claim that this slowing has nothing to do with the public's outrage over genetically modified food. But that's exactly what it is. They are taking the time to rally their public relations departments and clean up the image of genetically engineered food. They are learning from the mistakes of the first wave of GMOs that caused the public to react so violently. From the tore-up test plots to the hatred of the European Union to the people's voices on the streets of Seattle, the public caused enough of an uproar to even make huge mainstream food and beverage companies like Frito-Lay, Seagram and Gerber eliminate GMOs from their products. The negative reaction came from all elements of the population, not just the fringe but the mainstream of the world's people said "no!" to the first wave of GMOs. The biotech companies had to listen and listen they did. Get ready for the "new and improved” second wave of genetically engineered food.
What would it take for people to accept GMOs? Andrew Pollack in a New York Times editorial concluded that “It seems clear that the way to acceptance of genetically engineered foods lies through the creation of regulations that the public trusts and the delivery of benefits the consumer sees and tastes." The ineffectual biosafety protocol may be the beginning of those trusted regulations. Also legislation has been introduced in Congress, "The Genetically Engineered Right to Know Act" (H.R. 3377), which will provide even more public trust in GMOs even though it may end up as watered down as the Cartegena Protocol. Researchers are currently working on GMOs with benefits the consumers sees and tastes as opposed to the resistance to pests and herbicides as in the first wave GMOs which no one really cared about except the biotech companies and the farmers. Potential second wave GMO crops include rice infused with vitamin A, lack of which causes millions of cases of blindness, potatoes that can make low fat french fries and higher protein corn and soybeans.
Will all this public relation polishing of GMO's tarnished image be enough to sway the world's people into accepting genetically engineered food? Will the creation of laws regulating their insidious work and putting a big governmental "OK" on the whole business make everyone feel better? Will the creation of customer friendly strains of their mutations be enough to counter the public's negative reaction? I sure hope not.
john/carbon cycle * p.o. box 11741 * portland or 97211
(address from 2000 - ed)