Biotech Treaty Finally Agreed Upon

After 5 years of bitter negotiations, delegates from 130 countries finally hammered out a global treaty that will govern the trade of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The treaty formalizes the process by which countries can refuse to accept biotech products, an apparent blow to the biotech industry. Even so, both proponents and critics of biotechnology came away from the negotiating table at 5:00 a.m. in Montreal on 29 January claiming victory.

One reason for the unexpected compromise may be that the wording of the new treaty is decidedly ambiguous. For instance, the treaty allows countries to refuse to import GMOs based on a "precautionary principle"--that is, even without "sufficient scientific evidence" that the products could cause environmental harm or threaten human health. Elsewhere, however, the treaty stipulates that such rejections be based on "credible" scientific evidence.

The treaty focuses on living modified organisms such as seeds and fish that can colonize an ecosystem. It calls for the creation of a clearinghouse for information about GMOs. Exporters will be required to register new products with the database, which will be run by the United Nations, and provide scientific information about how they were created and tested. Exporters must also seek permission from importing countries to ship the new products the first time.

The treaty puts off for 2 years the issue that kept the United States and European Union at each other's throats until early morning in Montreal: whether to legislate the trade of GMOs that are not likely to propagate in the environment. The treaty states that such "commodity" GMOs intended for food or feed must be labeled "may contain" GMOs. But it does not require exporters to segregate GMO-containing products from traditional products. Some countries and companies already refuse GMO products and pay a premium for nonmodified crops--a market process that is likely to continue until the parties meet again in 2002.