St. Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
February 9, 2000
WASHINGTON - Sen. John Ashcroft told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on Tuesday that the United States made a bad deal worse by announcing that it will abide by the new Biosafety Protocol.
Grilling Albright in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Ashcroft, R-Mo., argued that the protocol gives Europe the sort of trade restrictions on genetically modified food that it has demanded for years in the World Trade Organization.
"We stood up to them in Seattle, but apparently not in Montreal," Ashcroft said, referring to the trade organization meeting in Seattle in December in which European demands were rebuffed.
Albright replied that it may have been "a less than perfect agreement," but that the United States succeeded in winning protections against countries that might try to ban genetically modified food for unsound scientific reasons.
She added that she'd be sending State Department officials to Ashcroft's office soon to continue the conversation.
Their dispute showed the complexity and uncertainty surrounding the treaty governing the movement of genetically modified goods around the world. The treaty was negotiated recently in Montreal.
The Biosafety Protocol has received a mixed reaction from companies, farm groups and industry associations since being concluded in Canada two weeks ago after five years of talks. Environmental advocates generally support it. It will take effect in about two years, after 50 countries ratify it.
St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., among the most positive about the protocol, believes that it establishes a framework for standardized rules around the world that will open markets for crops and foods with altered genetic codes.
Farm groups, much like the food industry, worry that the protocol will hasten the day of unwanted labeling of modified products. But farmers also were relieved U.S. negotiators succeeded in watering down a provision sought by Europe that would have required testing and probably segregation of genetically modified grain shipments.
More than half the soybeans and one-third of the corn planted in the United States last year was gene-altered for production ease or to help ward off pests.
Ashcroft's criticisms were the most barbed that the protocol has received in Washington. He said that he was particularly worried that previous U.S. trade agreements would be undermined by the protocol's wording.
He told Albright that the United States, even after agreeing to the treaty, blundered by publicly announcing plans to comply with its provisions.
Ashcroft said he based that assertion on previous WTO decisions which hold that a country's rights are defined by its practices. As Ashcroft sees it, the United States might be weakening future cases it might bring to the WTO by abiding by the new environmental protocol.
"It's troublesome and I think it threatens very substantially the technical position of the United States and our capacity to feed a hungry world," he said.
Asked outside the hearing how the United States might respond other than publicly endorsing and abiding by the treaty, Ashcroft responded: "One of the options is to go and do your best and not to announce that you're going to be compliant with something that could be against the national interest."
Unlike most treaties, the Biosafety Protocol will not come before the Senate for ratification. That's because the protocol is part of a larger treaty to which the United States hasn't agreed -- the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity.
Nonetheless, the protocol is binding on American businesses and farmers who use genetic technologies in their global trading.
Beyond the conflicting sentiments, the Ashcroft-Albright discussion also showed how the debate over gene-altered food has been elevated in Washington. The matter came up in the Foreign Relations Committee's annual "around the world" hearing in which the Senate and secretary of state review the world's hot spots and foreign policy problems in light of the president's budget.
In a written assessment of her global environmental priorities, Albright said that winning acceptance of gene-altered food around the world was second only to the challenge of climate change.
She told Ashcroft that she had become "personally interested" in the issue after listening to Europeans speak of their concerns. To help her on the issue, she established an informal advisory group in the State Department, Albright said.
"It's a huge problem, and we have to separate out what is real and what is protectionism," she said.
** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed for research and educational purposes only. **
Last Updated on 2/10/00
By Karen Lutz