Commentary: Biotech Foods: Why A Hard Line Could Stunt U.S. Trade

Time may be running out for the U.S. agricultural-biotech industry. On Jan. 24, nations from around the world will gather in Montreal to consider proposed rules that could shut down trade in genetically modified foods (GMOs). This could be the biotech industry's best--and last--chance to strike a compromise. But because it is not a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the U.S. will be excluded from the negotiations.

"We do not have a formal vote and we cannot take the microphone in full plenary sessions," says the head of the U.S. delegation, David B. Sandalow, assistant secretary of state for Oceans & International Environmental & Scientific Affairs. Created at the Earth Summit in 1992, the CBD aims to protect threatened ecosystems. Critics say biotech foods and other GMOs pose a threat to these ecosystems. President Clinton signed the CBD in 1993, but Senator Jesse Helms has not allowed a Senate vote on it. So the U.S., by far the world's largest exporter of GMOs, remains an observer.

Another problem for the U.S. industry is that the Montreal talks concern the environment--not trade. "Trade ministries are influenced by industry preferences," says Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College and Harvard University, who specializes in agriculture and trade policy. But the Montreal delegates, culled from environmental ministries, are less sympathetic.

NEW PROOF. Sandalow says the U.S. is troubled by three sets of proposals. One, from Europe, would require documentation tracing GMOs from the farm to the dock where they are delivered. A second, also from Europe, would require exporters to prove that GMOs are safe. That's a far tougher standard than that of the World Trade Organization, which says any regulations must be based on scientific findings of possible harm. A third set of proposals, from developing nations, would require that countries be notified and give consent before receiving shipments of GMOs. These proposals "will significantly disrupt world food trade," Sandalow says.

The U.S. biotech industry has taken a hard line against any regulations. But a more conciliatory approach could prove to be effective in Montreal. L. Val Giddings, who follows the negotiations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, opposes the European and developing-country proposals. "International shipments of commodity grain intended for food, feed, and processing do not threaten biodiversity," he says.

Maybe so, but many GMO critics are adamant in their opposition. As Philip L. Bereano of the Council for Responsible Genetics sees it, the U.S. and its allies "are willing to jeopardize long-term ecological stability for short-term economic gain." The U.S. is unlikely to prevail without listening to its opponents' concerns. In Montreal, it will have no choice: The critics will have the microphones, while the U.S. delegates wave from the grandstands.