International Biosafety Talks Fail

Talks in Colombia to hammer out an international agreement controlling trade of bioengineered organisms broke down earlier this week, putting the protocol on hold with a goal of reaching an agreement by May 2000.

Representatives from 138 countries had met in Cartagena to work out a Biosafety Protocol, as called for by the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biodiversity. The protocol is supposed to protect countries from unwittingly importing transgenics that could harm their environment--for example, if a gene inserted in a crop to make it resistant to herbicides were to jump into a related weed. European and developing countries have felt that the protocol--which would require that exporters gain approval from a country before shipping products there--should extend not just to seeds but also to transgenic corn, soybeans, and other crops, because those commodities are sometimes used as seeds. But that proposal was anathema to a United States-led bloc, which feared it would strangle trade in transgenic foods.

Unable to bridge the gap, the talks ended on 23 February without an agreement. "The outcome is the right outcome," says Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Environment and Development Rafe Pomerance, who led the U.S. delegation. (The United States was an observer at the talks because it still hasn't ratified the 1992 treaty, but wielded considerable influence because it was allied with five other countries and treaty issues must be decided by consensus). "Better no protocol than a bad protocol, absolutely," Pomerance says. The environmental group Greenpeace says the U.S. deliberately hamstrung the talks. "They weren't interested in the agreement," says Charles Margulis of Greenpeace's Washington, D.C., office. Margulis says other countries were willing to give in and exclude commodities in exchange for other concessions, but the United States just wasn't talking.