TCS Daily

Baby Steps

By Renee Cordes - September 30, 2002 12:00 AM

The Cartagena biosafety protocol may not give the Europe's biotechnology and genetically modified crop industries the gargantuan boost they need. But it might not be all bad news either.

On Sept. 24, the European Parliament gave the thumbs-up to rules aimed at bringing EU laws into line with the United Nations agreement governing international trade of GMOs. Under the protocol - expected to take effect next year, after it is ratified by 50 countries - GMOs can only be exported with the importing country's permission.

The EU as a whole has ratified the treaty, represented by the European Commission, along with six of the bloc's 15 member states: Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Luxembourg and Austria. That brings the total number of ratifying countries so far to 36.

Signing on the dotted line in May 2000 was just the first step. Now the EU is grappling with exactly how it should make good on its commitments. Among other things, the Commission's proposal unveiled in February would introduce a notification obligation for all GMO exports intended for deliberate release into the environment. But it also left the door open for "limited additional requirements" it said may be introduced "to maintain coherence with EU legislation on biotechnology and to ensure practical information," whatever that means.

In her speech to Parliament the day of the vote, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström argued that the Union must send a clear signal to the rest of the world that it will honor its commitments and be ready to implement the protocol as soon as it enters into force. She said the protocol will ensure the protection of biodiversity and human health worldwide.

In their first reading of the dossier, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted 264 to 200 with 47 abstentions in favor of the Commission's proposal - albeit with several amendments, many of which go well beyond the protocol or seek to clarify grey areas. One of these would require an importer's prior consent before any trade can take place; it also spells out that if an importer does not communicate his or her prior consent this would not necessarily indicate tacit consent. Others would prohibit GMOs from being exported if they are not already approved in the EU, require the EU to push for and commit to a global liability regime, and strengthen traceability rules so importers can demand notification of feed and food containing GMOs intended for animals. If Parliament has its way, the burden of notifying an importing country would rest with the exporter.

Swedish MEP Jonas Sjöstedt, Parliament's rapporteur on the subject who tabled a number of amendments, praised his fellow legislators for voting to maintain the EU's credibility, though he was disappointed they rejected an attempt to ban the export of seed not allowed in the EU. He promised to revisit the issue in the second reading.

Europe's biotech industry had been concerned that in its anti-GM zeal Parliament would impose additional restrictions on the export of so-called GM micro-organisms in contained use, or those that cannot live outside the laboratory. But its main lobby group breathed a sigh of relief when the legislature chose not to go this route.

Simon Barber, director of the plant biotechnology unit at EuropaBio, the European Association of Bioindustries, said that subjecting these materials to the same requirements as other GM products would have been a major blow to research. "We were pleased that quite a number of MEPs seem to be aware of the difficulties that would raise for European researchers," he said. It's vital for research projects between European public and private institutions and those in other parts of the world, especially lesser-developed countries, to continue, he argued. Even anti-GM group Friends of the Earth Europe, which is busy planning an anti-GM shopping cart parade in Brussels next month, cannot disagree with that. "Research is okay but keep the door of the laboratory shut," said the group's GMO campaigner, Geert Ritsema.

Sometime next year, the EU's new exporting rules in compliance with Cartagena will become official with probably very little fanfare. Meanwhile, the EU continues to make baby steps in its campaign to dispel Frankenfood myths and assure its own citizens that GMOs are safe.

On Oct. 17, new rules on traceability enter into force, which may be used by some to argue the case for lifting the EU's three-year-old on approval of products containing GMOs. Though this likely will not happen overnight, and there are a number of other legislative initiatives in the hopper, even anti-GM groups now acknowledge that change is inevitable.

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