GM crops gain acceptance among developing nations

A Canadian grain industry official says there has been a significant change in the global attitude toward genetically modified crops.

Dennis Stephens, consultant with the Canada Grains Council, recently returned from Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety meetings in Japan.

The protocol is a treaty governing the international movement of GM crops that has been ratified by 160 countries. It was adopted in 2000 and came into force in 2003.

Stephens was struck by the thawing in animosity toward GM crops during the latest round of discussions in Nagoya, Japan.

“It’s the most positive we’ve been in 10 years after watching all of these negotiations,” he said.

A supplemental protocol on liability and redress adopted in Japan was friendlier to the international grain trade than exporting countries had anticipated.

Stephens said a growing number of countries are recognizing that environmental treaties such as the biosafety protocol must not adversely impact grain trade.

“That was the first time in the 10-year evolution of this process that I heard what I would call a more balanced discussion and approach at these meetings and surprisingly, it was led by the developing world.”

Countries including India and China realize they need biotechnology to feed their growing populations.

They pushed for concessions in Japan that made the liability protocol more palatable to grain exporting nations including Canada and the United States, which have refused to sign the biosafety treaty.

Instead of exporters and importers being on the “front line” of the liability regime, it will be a fault-based system that extends back to the developers of the traits.

The system will apply only to damage caused by the GM crops and not to the products produced from them, such as oil and meal.

And there will be no requirement for a compensation fund paid for by a levy on GM crop imports.

Stephens said the concessions mean it is doubtful growers in grain exporting nations will be paying for a new risk premium to ship their crops.

“My guess is that this liability and redress protocol that has been developed will have very little impact on international trade,” he said.

Eric Darier, spokesperson for Greenpeace Canada, is pleased there is finally an international liability and redress agreement in place after six years of contentious negotiations.

But he is disappointed it is not a strict regime backed by a compensation fund and that it does not apply to ocean contamination caused by genetically engineered fish.

What the supplemental protocol amounts to is allowing individual countries to establish their own liability and redress regimes.

“It is now internationally recognized that countries have the right to do this,” said Darier.

He believes the new protocol will allow countries in the southern hemisphere to mimic the liability regimes that already exist in many rich northern countries without facing the possibility of a World Trade Organization attack from grain exporting nations.

“It gives more legitimacy now for each of the countries individually to go ahead and put that in place,” said Darier.

The liability and redress protocol will enter into force 90 days after being ratified by at least 40 parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The treaty will be open for signature at the United Nations headquarters in New York from March 7, 2011, to March 6, 2012.

Darier doesn’t expect it will take long to attain the required 40 signatures.

“I would expect the liability protocol to come into force fairly quickly,” he said. “If the EU ratifies it, that’s 27 countries in one go.”

Darier said the door hasn’t been closed on the compensation fund idea. The agreement allows for future measures to be adopted if the current system fails.

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