Countries adopt treaty on genetically altered products

Barring of seeds, crops and animals permitted

January 30, 2000|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MONTREAL -- Delegates from more than 130 nations adopted the first global treaty regulating trade in genetically modified products yesterday, setting up an international framework for the increasingly contentious debate about foods made with biotechnology.

The biosafety treaty, forged after a week of intense negotiations that often pitted the United States against almost every other participant, allows countries to bar imports of genetically altered seeds, microbes, animals and crops that they deem a health risk.

Virtually all of the proposed provisions that the U.S. government had feared would cripple world food trade and endanger billions of dollars a year in U.S. farm exports were watered down or eliminated. This led some European delegates and environmentalists to complain that the accord had been unduly weakened.

Whether the treaty heightens consumer concern or helps to ease it, the debate surrounding genetically altered food is sure to continue. European consumers, in particular, are wary of risks to human health and the environment.

Still, when the biosafety protocol was finally approved about 5 a.m., weary delegates from all sides stood, applauded and hailed it as a significant achievement.

"By reaching an agreement today, I hope we have taken an important step toward depolarizing the debate about biotechnology," Frank E. Loy, U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, said yesterday. "Conversely, failure to reach an agreement today would have exacerbated tensions over this issue."

Chee Yoke Ling of the Third World Network, an environmental group based in Malaysia, said that the treaty had "a lot of holes." But she added, "I think it's historic in the sense that international law is recognizing that GMOs are distinct and have to be regulated separately." GMO stands for genetically modified organism.

About half the soybeans and one-third of the corn grown in the United States last year contained foreign genes making the crops resistant to herbicides or insects. European consumers are rejecting food made with those grains.

The federal Food and Drug Administration held public hearings on the subject recently, and some members of Congress are calling for food with genetically modified ingredients to be so labeled.

Biotechnology company executives said the treaty could help the industry by countering a perception that biotechnology is not adequately regulated. "I think it will give some members of the public a stronger feeling that there is appropriate amounts of oversight," said Steven J. Daugherty, director of government and industry relations at Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a seed company.

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