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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Genetic-Engineering Treaty: U.S. Misses the Vote

Air Date: Week of February 19, 1999

In Cartagena, Colombia, delegates from 170 nations are developing a treaty on the international trade in genetically-modified plants and other products. The U.S. delegation disagrees strongly with the trade limits proposed by developing countries, but ultimately it has no say in the matter: the Senate never ratified the 1992 convention from which this treaty arose. Living On Earth talks with Charles Margulis, a member of the Greenpeace delegation in Cartagena.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Delegates from about 170 nations are in Cartagena, Colombia, hammering out the details of the first ever international treaty on genetically engineered plants and animals. And it's the details that are causing the controversy. Developing countries are especially concerned that genetically-modified organisms could harm native ecosystems. They want the right to decide whether to import such products. But US food companies argue this would devastate international trade in biotechnology. There's just one problem: the US has no vote on the treaty. The Senate never ratified the 1992 convention on biological diversity from which this bio-safety protocol was developed. Charles Margulis is with the Greenpeace delegation in Cartagena. A big concern, he says, is that when you modify a genetic trait there's no telling where it could end up. Consider what could happen if you make a plant resistant to herbicides.

MARGULIS: If that trait transfers to a weed, obviously you have a problem of a weed that is now uncontrollable by conventional herbicides, which will require more and more toxic herbicides to be developed to try to control these now super-weeds.

CURWOOD: I understand the major reason the US is opposed to strict limits here is that the food industry is very concerned that products containing genetic engineering will be tightly regulated, and they feel that while perhaps the seed might spread genetic material, that a product wouldn't pose the same risk.

MARGULIS: All right. This is the argument of industry, and this is simply not the case. All the developing world is asking is that the companies that are introducing this technology prove that it's safe. Products of biotechnology can transfer genetic material. Even processed food products have been seen to be able to have competent DNA that can transfer in the environment and in the food chain. This is an issue that's certainly not decided scientifically. There's still a widespread scientific uncertainty about how diverse these transfers can be in nature, and in the food chain. And this should require a precautionary approach to this technology, that countries should be able to say no to the introduction of these products into their environment.

CURWOOD: A number of European countries have bans on genetically- engineered products and such. How does that impact these negotiations?

MARGULIS: As you say, there are bans, now, of genetically-engineered crops in Austria and Luxembourg. Norway has a ban on genetically-engineered crops. The UK has a 3-year moratorium on certain genetically-engineered crops. And we're hopeful that this movement toward strong regulations of this technology in Europe will play out here at the negotiations.

CURWOOD: Tell me, how is the rest of the world viewing the United States at these negotiations? There are what, 170 countries there? The United States is the only major country who is not a signatory to this. How are people regarding us?

MARGULIS: Well, it's unfortunate that the United States has probably the most anti-environmental position of any government at these negotiations. They're consistently on the far extreme of anti-environmental positions. And yet, regardless of what the final agreement is, the United States will not sign it, and it will not be a party to the agreement.

CURWOOD: What kind of influence do you think the United States delegation is having on this process?

MARGULIS: Well, unfortunately, I think they're having a fairly profound influence. I mean, just the size of their delegation, there's a human aspect to these negotiations, which often start before 8 o'clock in the morning and often go until midnight. A delegation that has 16 or 18 people obviously has a human element of advantage over many of the delegations from the developing world that have maybe 1 or 2 delegates here who are trying to follow several different subgroups and plenary sessions and so on.

CURWOOD: I know you don't have a crystal ball there with you, but how do you expect this protocol is going to come out?

MARGULIS: It's very difficult to say at this point how it's going to come out. I think that the US influence is pushing for a weaker protocol. The developing world is still pushing for stricter regulations. The 2 sides are not seeing much movement. In fact, at a workgroup meeting the other day, the African nations did offer a slight compromise, and the US position was, we don't see our position as extreme and we're not willing to compromise. It's clear that the US is here to block any movement toward regulations of this technology, and I think that's a very dangerous blow to environmental safety for the global community.

CURWOOD: Charles Margulis is with the non-governmental organization Greenpeace and at the bio-safety negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia. Thank you, sir.

MARGULIS: Thank you, Steve.



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