SEATTLE - Biotechnology supporters at the World Trade Organization summit meeting applauded an agreement Thursday by European countries to set up a global "working group" to tackle thorny trade issues surrounding genetically engineered food.
The surprise agreement, which amounted to a concession by European countries, followed President Bill Clinton's appeal to delegates at the 135-member trade organization to reject the politics and emotionalism that often dominate the biotechnology debate.
Details about the scope of the proposed biotechnology working group still were being decided in meetings out of public view. It was likely that the group would be open to any country that wanted to participate. It would be a special effort within the organization devoted to biotechnology.
If the working group wins approval by the time the organization ends its ministerial meetings today or perhaps Saturday, it will need to overcome opposition from environmental advocates who worry that its existence would derail a separate United Nations biosafety negotiation next month that might try to impose its own, tougher trade-related rules.
But the plan was heralded by industry representatives and senators from Missouri and Illinois as an important advance toward cracking European trade barriers to U.S. grain exports. And it might be the closest thing to an achievement during this protest-laden week in Seattle on the contentious issue of genetically modified crops.
Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., called the new development "a major step in the right direction." Just after meeting in Seattle with a European contingent, Ashcroft said he detected among Europeans and others "a strong sentiment toward resolving these issues. I'm pleased to see that."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said the biotechnology group might aid a broader effort to focus the discussion about genetic engineering on science. "I think we might be able to finally establish a bottom-line scientific standard here. I don't think such a standard exists in Europe," he said.
Val Giddings, of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said that the working group would be valuable if it can clarify wording in World Trade Organization rules so as to strengthen the case of Americans wanting to export genetically modified products.
Pro-biotech forces also were pleased at Clinton's unqualified support of modified food during his two-day stop at the organization's gathering. Speaking on Wednesday, the president said that the United States "would never knowingly permit a single pound of any American food product to leave this country if I had a shred of evidence that it was unsafe, and neither would any farmer in the United States of America."
The president added, "I say to people around the world, we eat this food, too, and we eat more of it than you do. Now, if there's something wrong with anything we do, we want to know about it first. But we need to handle this in an open, honest way."
Before leaving the gathering on Thursday, the president again brought up trade during a signing ceremony for a new international treaty banning abusive child labor practices. Clinton said the United States was committed "not just to lower barriers but to raise living standards; to help ensure that people everywhere feel they have a positive stake in global trade that gives them and their children a chance for a better life."
U.S. officials said they were making little progress toward Clinton's principal objective at the talks: getting worker rights included in the Millennium Round of trade negotiations.
The president was criticized by business leaders for his remarks in a front-page Seattle Post-Intelligencer story in which he said that the United States not only wanted a working group on worker rights but the establishment later of core labor standards.
Up to that point, U.S. negotiators had not publicly broached the issue of the binding labor standards. The president went on to say in the interview that violations of those standards should bring trade sanctions.
Trade ministers also were grappling with the issues of agricultural export subsidies and domestic farm support programs. But no agriculture issue generated more discussion in Seattle than genetically modified crops.
European Union Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy told reporters on Thursday that his 15-country organization would continue to back a World Trade Organization biotechnology working group even though environmental ministers from France and the United Kingdom objected.
Their draft proposal called for a group "with a fact-finding mandate on the relationship between trade, development, health, consumer and environmental issues in the area of modern biotechnology."
Environmental advocates were worried that any such effort by the World Trade Organization would undermine a five-year negotiation under the framework of the UN Biodiversity Convention aimed at writing global rules for the movement of genetically engineered products. Those negotiations are scheduled to resume in Montreal next month.
Sophia Murphy, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group, said that trade officials "aren't equipped to address issues like consumer health, environmental effects and even science. The U.N. biosafety negotiation is where these discussions belong."
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Last Updated on 12/6/99
By Karen Lutz