SEATTLE, (Dec. 2) IPS - The European Union has spurned a U.S.- Canadian proposal to set up a formal working group on biotechnology under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO).
"We reject requests to deal with biotech exclusively on trade grounds...and we reject a market access negotiation for genetically modified organisms," said David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection for the European Commission.
The United States and Canada, who are part of the six-member bloc of agriculture-exporting nations known as the Miami Group, are opposed to restrictions on trade in biologically engineered products and have been pushing for a working group within the WTO.
Byrne told delegates at yesterday evening's session of the WTO ministerial conference that Europe was committed to following through with the negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol under the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, which seeks to regulate trade in genetically modified organisms.
"Our priority remains to complete successfully and quickly the negotiation of a Biosafety Protocol," Byrne said.
However, there could be room for a fact-finding exercise within the WTO if members of the Miami Group -- Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, the United States, and Uruguay -- committed themselves to "working hard and constructively for very early conclusions to the Biosafety talks."
Most Asian and African countries, joined by Bolivia, Norway, Peru and Switzerland, have also said they preferred to discuss the issue of biotechnology in forums outside the WTO.
Critics of the technology said not enough was known about the possible harmful environmental and health impacts of the biotechnology and therefore trade and commercialization of such products should be limited, if not halted entirely.
Tewolde Berhan Gebre-Egziabher, general manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, said raising the issue of genetically modified organisms within the WTO would enable the United States to fight Europe in a forum where its influential power was "supreme."
"The dimensions of safety can be reduced to refer only to the conditions that please those that are in global control of wealth and power," he said.
Gebre-Egziabher heads a group of African nations which opposed, before the WTO, the patenting of all life forms -- including "plants, animals, microorganisms and parts thereof."
"The effort of the South and those in the North who cherish peace to enjoy their affluence and those who cherish justice and wish a better life for all should thus be to keep genetically modified organisms out of Seattle," he said.
In an letter last month to U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, a grouping of non-governmental organizations expressed deep concern over the U.S. proposal for a biotechnology working group. The groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the Consumer's Choice Council, said the proposals "could place excessive constraints on the rights of governments to regulate, hampering their ability to respond to scientifically uncertain threats on the basis of the precautionary principle."
They warned that bringing biotechnology to the WTO could undermine the Biosafety Protocol and "could lead to new restrictions on right of governments to require labeling of (genetically modified products) to promote consumers' right-to-know."
Biotechnology has been a hot issue during the two days of protests outside the convention center since the conference began on Nov. 30. Jose Bove, the French farmer who was jailed in France for destroying a McDonald's with his tractor, held a rally outside a McDonald's restaurant here in Seattle to protest genetically modified foods.
While criticizing the chain for its use of hormone-treated beef and genetically engineered french fries, supporters of Bove handed out Roquefort cheese, which is heavily taxed by the United States in retaliation for the European ban on beef treated with a synthetic genetically engineered hormone.
"McDonald's is only a symbol," Bove told the crowd, while standing atop a bus with signs and banners protesting genetically modified food. The protest outside the restaurant, he said, was not "an act against American people but against free trade ideology that forces everyone to eat unhealthy and unsafe food."
Concern over genetically engineered food has been growing in the United States and 20 congressional representatives have proposed a bill that would require labeling of genetically modified products.
While Europe and Japan require labels identifying biologically engineered food products, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so far has not required labeling because it said the products are "substantially equivalent" to non-genetically modified products. In response to growing public concern over the possible ill health effects of eating biologically engineered food, the FDA is currently holding public hearings across the country.
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Last Updated on 12/4/99
By Karen Lutz