Renske van Staveren (IATP) and Phil Bereano (CRG, WashBAC)
Last July, despite US attempts to prevent it, the Codex decided to more formally address GE foods. The primary purpose of this meeting was to inaugurate the Task Force which Codex established, develop its work plan for the next four years, and stake out basic positions and issues. It was chaired by the host country, Japan, as usual. Most of the debate was on the Task Force's mandate and terms of reference. The United States, throughout, urged a narrow focus on the safety and nutritional factors of genetically engineered (GE) plants; Malaysia, Norway, several of the EU countries, for example, took much more socially responsive positions.
The first morning, Renske circulated the NGO letter (signed by about 230 organizations and individuals from 31countries) addressed to Codex Executive Committee Chair Thomas Billy (of the US). This letter critiqued the Codex summary document which purported to interpret the Biosafety Protocol, particularly its discussion of the Precautionary Principle, the relation of the Protocol to the WTO agreements and the application of the Protocol to agricultural commodities. Jeanette Longfield of IACFO (International Association of Consumer Food Organizations) made a formal inquiry about the matter, commending the work of the NGOs involved in writing the letter (CRG, WashBAC, and IATP, by name; unfortunately missing CNI). France and Italy made interventions also supporting the NGO critique. Billy said that the Protocol text was not available when the Secretariat prepared the document (although it is dated February, the month after the Montreal negotiations). He noted that delegates should refer to the full text, now provided in the meeting room, and that he would consider having the Codex summary document withdrawn, which--he admitted--may not accurately give the Protocol provisions. While the scope of this victory may not be momentous, the fact that the international NGO community achieved it, early in the process, is noteworthy in our view. The letter was translated into Japanese for circulation at an NGO forum held parallel with the intergovernmental meeting (see below) and a French version has been posted on the internet and distributed. The English version of the letter can be located at http://www.iatp.org.
The U.S. argued that many of the possible topics for the Task Force presented by the meeting Chair were the responsibility of national governments and not appropriate for the committee's consideration.
I. Traceability and labelling
Advocates of "traceability", such as France, want to ensure that any GMO can be traced back to its point of origin, or at least first point of sale, to ensure that any contamination of non-GMO product with GMO product can be contained and dealt with and that necessary information can be brought to bear on any situation of adverse impacts (perhaps including liability)..The U.S. opposed including "traceability" of GMOs , saying that it did not understand what was entailed in the term. The Codex Secretariat supported the U.S. claiming that most Codex members didn't understand "traceability" either. France, Germany, Greenpeace etc. tried to explain what was entailed by the term and argued that traceability systems were already in place for non-GMOs. Indeed, as Consumers International noted, the US government (and others also) uses the concept in a number of food contexts (as well as for other safety measures); hamburger, for example, is marketed under such a scheme so that if any sold in a supermarket is found to be contaminated the meat can be traced back to its point of origin, enabling disease to be contained by cleaning up dirty facilities/changing handling practices, etc.
The U.S. (which, by the way, even objected to the term "genetically modified organism"!) has maintained for some time that there is no need for a GMO tracing system because the products are safe and such a system would be too costly. (For example, these are the same arguments that it has made against labeling and that dragged the biosafety negotiations out until 4:30 in the morning in Montreal.) Greenpeace argued that the U.S. was afraid to deal with traceability because it would force the U.S. to deal with liability and insurance issues relating to GMOs. The U.S. said that the task force should not consider labeling issues related to biotechnology products since these should be the jurisdiction of the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, CCFL.
The issue of traceability remains bracketed in the meeting texts. France will prepare a discussion paper on traceability, including impacts on developing countries, either for the next meeting of the working group (in July 2000) or for a March 2001 meeting of the whole Task Force. (If the paper is not done on time, Codex will probably not take up the issue.)
II. "Other Legitimate Factors"
Codex general rules allow countries to use "other legitimate factors" (such as ethical /religious/cultural considerations, consumer concerns, food security, enforcement capacity, and environmental risks) in their regulations, even if these have an impact on trade. It is a matter of international contention whether such factors really exist and if so what they should be. The European Union argued, though not strenuously, for a wider focus to also allow for the consideration OLFs, such as transparency issues for civil society involvement in standard setting. Sweden and Norway argued for post-market controls and monitoring. Malaysia and others argued for inclusion of ethical and religious considerations. France was the most vocal proponent of a broad mandate for the task force. Not surprisingly, the US took a narrow view.
III. Additional important issues
Because these are so well known, we will not report the details or country positions. However, there was "diplomatic" discussion of
There was a lot of discussion about procedures for dealing with risk. The distinctions between "risk assessment," "risk management," and "risk communication" [originally made by Bill Ruckelshaus at EPA as part of the Reagan Administration effort to contain citizen participation in regulatory decision-making and to erect procedures so complicated that business could delay actually having to control its conduct] are--unfortunately--largely accepted by the international community. (The US now distinguishes something called "risk analysis" which is a combination of these 3 elements.) The claim is made that we must separate out science-based procedures (i.e., risk assessment), as if these are not loaded with subjective aspects.
The Precautionary Principle is being discussed within the Codex Committtee on General Principles, CCGP (which meets in April in Paris.)
The Chair produced an "aide memoire" which attempted to categorize subjects raised by delegations. This was re-worked (in a process within which the US was very active) into 3 broad areas: Tak Force work (including science-based decision-making, pre-market approval, risk analysis, substantial equivalence, Precautionary approach/principle, OLFs, traceability, methods of analysis/sampling, labeling, transparency, etc.); "key principle, concept or definition": (substantial equivalence, modern biotechnology, recombinant DNA technique, GMOs); and food categories (plants, animal, etc.). These were listed and then arrayed against 6 factors:
Two working groups will operate under the Task Force, open to all Codex participants. One, to be led by Germany, covers analytical methods (biological and risk assessment methods); the other, covering everything else, will be chaired by Japan.
The working group meeting in July (in Japan) will probably be quite important, as will the work NGOs can do between now and then and at the other 2 relevant upcoming Codex venues, CCGP and CCFL (May, Ottawa). The next meeting of the whole Task Force is in a year, also in Japan.
Also relevant is a WHO/FAO Expert Consultation, to be held in June addressing questions such as: what "overarching" scientific principles should be applied to safety and nutritional assessment, substantial equivalence, the science of monitoring/assessing long-term health effects, allergenicity, and antibiotic resistance marker genes. This is clearly an important arena.
There is a certain amount of fuzzy thinking going on -- for example, the implications (by omission) that there are no short-term health effects that one must worry about, or that "intentional" effects can never be negative (since the list of subjects of concern only includes "unintentional effects").
A large number of contentious issues will be addressed in a short time frame in a number of different venues. This situation will put a strain on NGO resources and limit our abilities to participate. In addition, the world will not be static during the 4 year life of the Task Force; as we saw with the Protocol, our activities, etc. created a different atmosphere at Montreal in 2000 compared to Cartagena just a year earlier. Thus, is seems critical for us to network as much as possible so as to share information and strategize; indeed, that was much of the motivation for this missive.
A larger question for us concerns the inaccessibility of the Codex process to most of civil society. (We raised this point at an academic follow up meeting Saturday the 18th in Tokyo, attended by some Codex people, challenging them to evolve along the lines of other UN agencies, most notably the CBD). Perhaps we need another letter to Billy, with a concerted push behind it (lobbying delegations, etc); conversations on this point would seem most timely now.
News accounts have been carried on at least 2 US listservs: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
A 4-day "Codex NGO Forum in Chiba" was organized by the Japan NGO Committee (about 54 organizations and 95 individuals). The Committee is directed by our colleague Mika Iba (of the Network for Safe and Secure Food and Environment) and the Secretariat is headed by Mr. Kazuki Maeda from the Seikatsu Club Consumers Co-operative. Among those involved were farmers, students, consumers, academics, etc.
Just 6 days before the Forum was to open (with an event featuring Dr. Arpad Pusztai), the government's Labor Ministry revoked the agreement to lease the venue. A new place was secured, at 5 times the cost, in the wonderfully-named Makuhari TechnoGarden (Makuhari is a Part of Chiba, a new artificial world-of-tomorrow built into Tokyo Bay).
Following an NGO briefing on Monday evening, the big event was Tuesday's demonstration. Although timed for the Codex lunch time, the meeting re-scheduled its break so the delegates would not be exposed to the protest. The rally and parade were easy to spot, however, by the helocopter flying overhead and the crouds of cops. Butterflies, oncomice, and BGH-ed cows all cavorted in the sunshine with many banners and signs in 2 languages (local and imperial). Phil spoke, bringing greetings from NGOs around the world.
Subsequent days included Symposia, press briefings, cultural events, a farmers' day (with lunch containing on organic rice and tofu made on the spot), reports of activities in other nations, an expert panel on the Codex meeting, and NGO strategizing. A few translators, a lot of informal usage of sign language, and wonderful hospitality made this a memorable political experience.
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Last Updated on 4/1/00
By Rachel C. Benbrook