Are genetically modified organisms a miracle that will solve the world's hunger problems or a menace that will threaten human health, environment and food security? Attempts to sideline the …

-- on a radio programme aired on a popular international station, representatives of the plant biotechnology industry likened the fear for genetically modified organisms (gmos) to the initial fear of vaccinations. Both, they claimed, are equally unfounded and come in the way of benefits to humankind. Just as vaccinations put an end to dreaded diseases, plant biotechnology could put an end to world hunger and malnutrition. But six years after the first transgenic plant hit the market, the world seems far from convinced that tinkering with plant genes to enhance, suppress or add a desired quality will solve the food problem. While some of this scepticism comes from lack of faith in the technology itself, a large part of it is due to a complete distrust in those who make the claim -- the biotech industry and the governments that protect them from regulation.

Genetic engineering of plant and animal genes is a science that is here to stay. But increasingly, it is a science that has been appropriated by multinational corporations (mncs) in the North, particularly North America, for profit. Global biotech research is in the hands of 15 major corporations, 13 of which are North American. The leading 10 firms account for 81 per cent of the market. The rest of the world has watched with apprehension while a handful of mncs monopolise not only the science of genetic engineering, but also global decision-making on its use. "Public control of genetic engineering moved out many years back," says Tewolde Egziabher, general manager of Ethiopia's Environment Protection Agency (epa). "(This) is the first technology that is not being developed by the public sector under public supervision, but is led by private sector playing private games."

This gives rise to two main fears: that these mnc s will play down the risks associated with their products and they will decide the priorities of the science based on commercial prospects, rather than the needs of the people, particularly the poor. mnc s have gone to absurd lengths to create dependence on their products, tamper with research and, it would seem, to even buy over and influence governments to represent their interests in global talks. The us -led 'Miami Group' of countries (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay and the us) has consistently opposed regulations and attempted to derail the 'Biosafety Protocol' to control and monitor biotechnology.

Their powerful influence upon government policy is no surprise. Agro-industries contribute a huge sum to both us Republican and Democratic parties. They also transfer staff between government regulatory agencies and senior personnel in the agro-industry, creating a close relationship with decision-makers. For instance, a former senior manager of Cargill headed the us delegation to the protocol negotiations in 1999, and former us epa administrator William Ruckselhouse is on the board of Monsanto, the biotech giant.

A December 2000 report published by the California- based Institute for Food and Development Policy reveals how us taxpayers' money is used through foreign assistance programmes to subsidise the export of genetically engineered (ge) foods to developing countries, and even diverted to support research for biotech companies. The us budget for 2001 has sanctioned us $30 million for development and research of biotechnology to help solve environmental, humanitarian and health concerns in the developing world. Of this amount, three million dollars are allotted for biotech research programmes at the University of California, Davis, University of Missouri and Tuskeegee University, which have connections with biotech companies. Food aid donated by the us Agency for International Development (usaid) that arrived in Orissa, India, after a disastrous cyclone in 2000 was found to contain gmo s, allege activists in India. They were not labelled and the Indian government was not informed of the import.

Actions such as these have earned large-scale distrust from civil society groups, particularly in Europe and the developing world, who feel they have been completely excluded from decisions. While consumers in Europe have protested against gm commodities such as modified tomatoes appearing on their shelves without proper labelling, poor farmers in the South have protested against technologies that would end up making them entirely dependent on the mncs for seeds.

Food security in developing countries could be seriously undermined not only through dependence on mncs for seed and technology, but also through restrictive contracts fashioned by these corporations to maximise profits by ensuring that they are the only source of germplasm, or the starting material. Such contracts could stipulate that farmers neither replant the seeds from their own crops nor sell the seeds to others. Worse still, the companies could seek to ensure they are the only source of germplasm through inventions such as the 'Terminator technology', where seeds from a harvest are made sterile to prevent farmers from planting them in the next harvest. This way, farmers would have to buy new seeds from the company every year. Public pressure recently led Monsanto, the chemical, pharmaceutical, agricultural and consumer products company based in Missouri, usa, that was researching the technology, to announce recently that it has abandoned work on Terminator. But the company is now developing another technology towards achieving the same end (see box: From terminator to traitor).

Fighting regulation>
There are several proven risks associated with the use of gmos (see box: Risky business) . Top among these are concerns for the environment (through genetic pollution, if the introduced trait is passed onto wild plants, for instance), and concern for human health (in the form of either hidden allergens in food, and antibiotic resistance). The risks are particularly grave for developing countries. Unlike industrialised countries, few of them have national legislation in place to restrict field trials of transgenic plants or the ability to test products to check for modified content. So trials are often carried out in their countries without the government or civil society's knowledge, exposing their ecosystems to dangers of genetic pollution.

From the beginning, biotech corporations have opposed a precautionary approach to gmos, but at the same time refused to take responsibility for any risks associated with their use. One of the earliest global attempts to control risks was under the Convention on Biological Diversity cbd) signed in 1992. Developing countries had proposed global regulations under cbd to ensure that companies of the North do not continue to take advantage of the South's lower regulatory capacities. The us , which was experiencing major growth in the biotech field and was already speaking for the industry, opposed any regulation that would harm their business interests.

The overwhelming concern of other countries involved in cbd negotiations, however, led to the inclusion of a provision to consider the need for a biosafety protocol. This provision was to be the beginning of negotiations that would stretch on for at least eight years. From the outset, there were at least two contentious issues -- whether nations exporting gmos needed specific "advance informed agreements" (aias) from importing nations, and the type and range of gmos that should be regulated by the protocol. The us insisted on changing all references to gmos in the cbd to "living modified organisms" or lmos, to "underscore that ge was not the source of concern". References to gm commodities (which are sold to consumers directly rather than farmers, such as modified tomatoes, potatoes and rice varieties) were changed to references to " lmos for food, feed or processing" (lmo- ffp).

cbd returned to the biosafety issue in 1995 when it set up a biosafety working group (bswg). Between 1996 and 1998, bswg met five times and each meeting seemed more controversial that the last. Even the fundamental basis of the protocol was questioned. Countries with business interests (the leading three gmo exporting countries are the us , Argentina and Canada) opposed the precautionary approach, insisting that the world wait for scientific proof before placing regulations. By the fifth meeting in August 1998, which was supposed to be the final one, the bswg had even more points of contention.

At the sixth meeting, held in February 1999 in Cartagena, Colombia, the situation went from bad to worse. Country positions had crystallised and five major groups emerged. Despite not having ratified cbd , the us continued to participate by proxy using ally countries of the Miami Group to influence the negotiations. The developing countries, excluding those that joined the Miami Group, were called the "Like Minded Group" (lmg). While the Miami Group refused to accept the precautionary principle, lmg refused an agreement without it (see box: The players and their game). The European Union (eu) was dealing with public opposition to gmo s in its member nations, but seemed willing to concede to the Miami Group on the precautionary principle. This was apparently not enough. The Miami Group also demanded complete, unconditional exemption of gm commodities from regulation. Yet another major point of frustration was the Miami Group proposal that lmo-ffp s be excluded completely from regulation.

Another year was set aside. Informal consultations were held in Vienna, Austria in September 1999. To help work out differences, an unusual negotiation style was adopted, which later came to be known as the 'Vienna setting'. Some 300 representatives of 115 governments and 70 non-government, intergovernmental and industry organisations were split up into the five negotiating groups. Two representatives from each group were chosen to meet in a roundtable format. Everybody else was an observer. The president of the negotiation, Colombian environment minister Juan Mayr, used this approach because he felt that "too many people talking had led to too few people listening at the previous discussions".

Miami Group rules in Montreal

After the Cartagena talks failed, public awareness and attention focussed on the biosafety talks. This increased public pressure to complete a protocol led eu lead negotiator Christoph Bail to admit that he was, at most, "mildly optimistic" that an agreement would be reached at the resumed session for the adoption of the protocol in January 2000 in Montreal, Canada. Due to its success in the informal consultations, the 'Vienna setting' was used again.

At this meeting, lmg conceded that commodities would be regulated by a "biosafety clearinghouse" (bch) mechanism instead of the stricter aia framework. (Under the clearing-house mechanism, the exporting country would only have post information regarding its gm exports on a website, whereas under an aia , the express agreement of the importer is required). The group succeeded in inserting a clause on socioeconomic considerations, which allows for concerns over food security to be addressed. Since actions taken under this provision could be seen as trade barriers, it remains to be seen how this can actually be implemented without flouting agreements under the World Trade Organisation (wto).

A compromise was reached on the issue of the precautionary principle and it was decided that though 'precautionary principle' or 'precautionary approach' would not be directly referred to anywhere in the protocol text, lack of scientific certainty... shall not prevent a party from taking a decision for regulatory action. Since a decision to stop lmo imports on the basis of this article could once again be viewed as a trade barrier, a very dubious compromise was reached on the relationship between the protocol and wto . The agreement now has three different clauses in the preamble -- that the protocol was to work with other agreements, not to supersede them, and not to be subordinate either. The meaning of this convoluted compromise is in the eye of the biased beholder.

The completion of the protocol also came at the expense of two of its main goals: liability and labelling. Who is to blame when something goes wrong and who will deal with the problem? lmg was particularly concerned about their lack of capacity to deal with possible negative effects of imported gmo s. The eu was aware that public sentiment was strongly opposed to gmo s and if any negative effects were to surface, the public would demand a lot in the way of conciliatory action. Both groups wanted a guarantee that their governments would not be burdened with the full duty of dealing with possible damage caused by imports from private biotech companies. According to international law, the state has to deal with any breach of international agreements by its citizens or private companies. But Argentina, Canada and the us said they would not accept liability discussions, and the other groups had to accept a compromise stating that the negotiations would address the issue within four years after the protocol's entry into force.

The Montreal talks almost broke down on the issue of labelling, which clearly identifies the product as gmo s. This is particularly vital for the South, as they are often the dumping grounds for developed countries. But here, too, the compromise was to the advantage of the Miami Group. On the last scheduled day of the meeting, its representatives said they would not agree to specific labelling. They wanted that labels only be required to state that the product "may contain lmos". The other groups were forced to concede. Observers noted that there were many "almost tearful faces among the dejected (Like Minded) Group". Egziabher, chief spokesperson of group, justified the decision, saying that if the other groups had not conceded, there would not have been a protocol and the process would have had to start all over again.

A much-diluted Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (cpb) was adopted on January 29, 2000. The only consolation for many developing countries was that now that a protocol existed, it could be amended. The unusual nature of the meeting's proceedings at once reflected the delegates' desperation. In an attempt to keep spirits up, Mayr had resorted to using stuffed animals to represent the speakers. When a representative's turn to address came up, Juan Mayr displayed their assigned stuffed animal. On the third day, attendees were requested to "stand, clasp hands, and ponder how to move the process forward".

Calm in Montpellier

The biosafety protocol is expected to come into effect in April 2002, following ratification by at least 50 countries. Meanwhile, work on furthering the protocol continues under the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The committee had its first meeting in December 2000 in Montpellier, France.

The bch , mandated by the protocol for exchange of information on biosafety, dominated the agenda. The clearinghouse became vital because lmo-ffp s were excluded from aia as were lmo s in transit for contained use and pharmaceuticals. Instead of seeking further agreement, exporting countries are expected to post information on the bch website, where it will be accessible to importing countries. Realising the high stakes involved, the Global Industry Coalition (gic), a group of over 2,200 firms from around 130 countries, including Monsanto and Advanta, expressed willingness to assist in setting up bch . While the us supported this offer, Non-government organisations ( ngo s) pointed out that it would be rather inappropriate for the "fox to be guarding the hen house". It was decided that bch would be set up in a phased manner, starting with a pilot phase, a central portal and database containing at "minimum" information from nations without a national database, and information sent from nations without an electronic infrastructure.

The Montpellier meeting discussed a roster of experts to help developing countries deal with biosafety issues. The us strongly lobbied for a scientific institutions in the roster. But many developing countries opposed the idea. As P K Ghosh, a representative of the Indian delegation, said, including scientific bodies would give the North an advantage, since most scientific institutions are concentrated in Europe and the us . gic was once again eager to be included in the roster for their "long-standing expertise in transboundary movements of lmos". But ngo s opposed this offer.

Defying democracy

Biotechnology has been advertised as a solution to hunger. There is a general agreement that it can increase crop yields. However, are over 800 million people in the world going hungry simply because not enough food is available? Will the agro-biotech industry really provide that food? (see box: Rice steeped in controversy). "We need to take all the necessary precautions to protect human health and the environment, but in the long term, I believe this (genetic modification) is a vital tool in the fight against hunger," says Jacques Diouf, director general of Food and Agricultural Organisation. Others suggest that the amount of food is not the problem at all.

"The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before," says Peter Rosset, director of the California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy. "Enough is available to provide two kilogrammes (of food) to every person every day. The real problems are poverty and inequality. A food system increasingly dependent on ge seeds takes us in the wrong direction." If unequal distribution is the problem, then more food produced by a handful of corporations will only lead to more unequal distribution. As yet, there is no mechanism to address this problem at the international level.

Biotech proponents have said that a 'gene revolution' could repeat the Green Revolution's success in boosting food production in the late 1960s and 1970s. But while the Green Revolution was mainly a government initiative with philanthropic foundations and activities, 80 per cent of all biotech research takes place in the private sector. Private firms decide on what types of innovation to glean from knowledge of the gene. In a survey of 86 public plant breeders from 25 us universities working on 41 crops, half said they had met difficulty in gaining access to genetic stocks from private companies. Half of these responses added that the difficulty had significantly hampered their research.

The biggest problem with biotechnology, it would thus seem, is that its current mentors do not give people the chance to choose whether they want it in the first place, or to decide on its uses. Samuel Ochieng of the Kenya Consumer Information Network sums up global concern about the biotech industry's agenda. "We are not saying there are no benefits," he says. "The issue is that we are being rushed, and there is not enough consultation."

With inputs by Lian Chawii in Montpellier, France

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