EU insists on precautionary biosafety protocol

Wallström says GMO trade should allow import ban if threat to environment suspected

Countries should be able to block the import of genetically modified (GM) crops if they suspect the products could have adverse impacts on biodiversity, EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström said today. The EU is pushing for inclusion of the precautionary principle in imminent talks on the UN's proposed international biosafety protocol, she said. Officials conceded, however, that decisions made under the protocol would not preclude appeals to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Inclusion of the precautionary principle in the biosafety protocol is being strongly resisted by the "Miami" group of six grain-producing countries, led by the USA, the world's biggest GM crop producer. But developing countries say it is essential to prevent potential environmental damage from GM grain imports. The concept is also central to EU environmental policymaking. "The sticking point is, are we going to use it or not?" Ms Wallström said today.

Officials from 170 countries meet in Montreal next Monday to resume talks on the protocol, which aims to protect wildlife from threats posed by transboundary movements of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The talks collapsed in February last year after the Miami group rejected a compromise text drafted by the EU and supported by 140 other countries (ENDS Daily 24 February 1999). The dispute concerns the level and burden of proof demanded by the "advanced informed consent" (AIA) procedure, which will regulate bulk movements of grain.

The EU is also insisting that decisions made under the protocol should not be "subordinate" to international trade regimes such as the WTO. It opposes attempts by the Miami group to insert a "savings clause" stating that the protocol has no status in the event of a trade dispute. An EU negotiation team member said today, however, that removal of this clause would mean only that decisions by the WTO should "take into account" any precautionary action taken under the biosafety protocol.

Developing countries also want the protocol's definition of GMOs widened to include products derived from GMOs as well as those used for direct cultivation, such as seeds. Conciliation talks in September confirmed a "general agreement that the scope should be broad," according to the UN, which will administer the protocol.

EU negotiators said today they were "moderately optimistic" about reaching an agreement. They also confirmed today they had no plans to retable the question of responsibility for any damage caused by GM crops after a transboundary movement. Countries agreed last year to insert an enabling provision allowing a separate liability regime to be agreed later.

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 299 1111; Biodiversity convention secretariat, tel: +1 514 288 2220.

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