TORONTO (AP) -- What would happen if a genetically modified crop, such as corn made resistant to a certain pest, spread its seed through cross-pollination to mix with unaltered plants?
Might such tampering with the building blocks of life disrupt nature's fragile food chain? Hasten the extinction of species? Unleash a biological time bomb?
No one really knows the possible ramifications, and that is the problem facing hundreds of government ministers, environmentalists and other delegates converging on Montreal to try to agree on regulating trade of genetically engineered plants and animals.
The Montreal meeting from Jan. 24-28 is sponsored by the U.N. Environmental Program and is an extension of failed talks 11 months earlier in Cartagena, Colombia, on what is called the Biosafety Protocol. The Cartagena meeting collapsed when the United States, Canada, Australia, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile blocked a draft accepted by 125 other countries.
Environmental groups and developing nations accused the United States of protecting its large and growing biotechnology industry by undermining a compromise agreement brokered by the European Union.
Distrustful of the powerful U.S. industry's motives, they say the unchecked tampering with nature inherent in gene-splicing has the potential for environmental catastrophe.
Proponents say such arguments ignore the promise and benefits to humanity of scientific advancement. The true potential of this new technology is in eliminating famine with higher-yield, more resilient crops, they argue.
Most issues that doomed the Cartagena meeting remain unresolved, including:
-- whether the agreement should cover all genetically modified
organisms, including food products and other commodities, or just the
minority being introduced into the environment, such as seeds;
Biotech products bring higher yields than traditionally crossbred hybrids and require fewer chemical insecticides and herbicides. Their patents are mostly owned by a handful of companies -- from Monsanto of St.. Louis to Novartis of Basel, Switzerland, who insist the products are rigorously tested and safe.
But many Europeans distrust genetically engineered products. Austria and Luxembourg have banned certain biotech crops and regulations are widespread mandating the labeling of biogenetic food products for consumers.
The European Union, China and scores of other developing nations, and major environmental groups, including Greenpeace, want the agreement based on the "precautionary principle," akin to a "better safe than sorry" attitude that would allow nations to ban genetically modified products without scientific proof of imminent harm.
"I think the crux of the issue is the right to say no," said Louise Gale, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace.
U.S. officials and industry proponents tend to regard the European opposition as a way to restrict U.S. imports under the guise of health worries.
Val Giddings of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, representing more than 800 groups concentrated mostly in the United States and Canada, said the Biosafety Protocol should only cover genetically modified organisms being put in the environment, such as seeds, because commodities such as food products were safe.
"New varieties of corn and wheat do not present risk to biodiversity," he said, adding that requiring exporters to get the consent of importers for each shipment of genetically modified commodities would bring "massive disruption of world trade" with "zero benefit to global biodiversity."
Although genetic engineering experimentation began two decades ago, development of biotech foods, vaccines and byproducts has only recently taken off. Worldwide, more than 67 million acres of genetically altered crops were sown in 1998, up from 2 million in 1996.
In the United States, between 25 percent and 45 percent of some major crops such as corn and soybeans already are genetically modified and not labeled as such. Industry officials expect 90 percent of U.S. agricultural exports to be biogenetic within a decade.
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Last Updated on 1/24/00
By Karen Lutz