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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Latest Debate Over Genetically-Modified Foods

Air Date: Week of

International negotiators have been meeting in Montreal in an effort to establish rules governing the trade of genetically-modified products. Reporter Bob Carty gives us an update.


CURWOOD: There is a new international treaty governing the trade of genetically modified foods. But it took almost a week's worth of talks in Montreal, one all night session, and a few compromises to get there. Supporters of genetically engineered products say they reduce the need for pesticides, keep us healthier and help to feed a hungry world. Critics warn of damage to humans and the environment with unintended toxins and allergens. And that theses novel life forms could overwhelm the wild gene pool of plants and animals. It's those concerns that led the European Union and most developing countries to fight to retain the right to refuse shipments of genetically modified products, even if hard scientific evidence of harm is not available. Living on Earth's Diane Toomey has details on the new agreement.

TOOMEY: Up until the final hours of these negotiations Canada and the US insisted these goods could not be turned away at the border unless they were proven unsafe. But under the new agreement countries can refuse GM products based on the precautionary principle. In other words, if there is reasonable doubt about their safety. Louise Gale, biosafety political advisor with Greenpeace, explains the reason behind the US, Canadian compromise.

GALE: I think they could see that this was a very very critical point for the rest of the world. All the other negotiating groups were absolutely adamant that they couldn't concede on this. The risks were too great.

TOOMEY: But in a concession of their own, the European Union and developing countries will allow imports to be labeled with the words "this product may contain genetically modified organisms." That eliminates the need to segregate GM ingredients from natural ones, a process that the US and Canada had complained would be costly and time-consuming. Louise Gale says despite the fact that the US is not a signatory to the biodiversity treaty this protocol is part of, the agreement will impact US exports.

GALE: There is language in the protocol which obliges the countries that are parties to the protocol to make sure that any dealings they have with nonparties have to be consistent with the objectives of the protocol. So there are going to be it's sort of like a defacto, inevitable fact that the US is going to have to respect the protocol because otherwise the countries importing from the US will be in breech of the protocol.

TOOMEY: Of the more than one hundred thirty negotiating countries fifty of them must ratify the agreement before it can take effect. For Living on Earth I am Diane Toomey.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Company who's been following the debate on gentically modified foods and covered the negotiations in Montreal. He told me it's important to remember that the talks were held under the auspices of the U.N. Biodiversity Treat and that the connection between that treaty and genetically modified products can be a strong one.

CARTY: The basic concern is that a genetically-modified organism can affect the entire ecology of the world. Like non-native species do. These zebra mussels are an example I really like. You know, a critter that came from the Caspian Sea ended up in the Great Lakes because it was unintentionally released. And it went on to multiply and clog up intake pipes and cost millions of dollars. With genetically-modified grains, for example, they can be sold in a marketplace, say, in Mexico. People buy them for food, but could also buy them to plant. And then, as they grow, they could cross-pollinate, could crowd out existing native varieties, and in the end create super weeds or resistance among pests. That's the fear, it would reduce biological diversity.

CURWOOD: Well, we know from the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, the trade talks these days can inspire rather rowdy protests. What was it like in the streets of Montreal?

CARTY: There actually was some chat before Montreal began that the Battle of Seattle would become the Brawl of Montreal. It didn't happen that way, though. Everything was very, very peaceful. There was a demonstration of about 300 people, with an eight-foot cob of corn devouring a monarch butterfly. But it was quite peaceful. And inside the conference hall, things were very, very relaxed and informal, but extremely intense. Press conferences going on every which way by different factions of countries: pro-biotech farmers, anti-genetically-altered food farmers, scientists on one side and the other. A lot of media attention for an event that is really about a very technical and legal document.

CURWOOD: There is a lot at stake, though, here, isn't there? I mean, some people call these Frankenfoods. There's fear that these genetically-modified foods in particular are really dangerous. And some food processors and importers are simply refusing to buy them, right?

CARTY: That's correct, there's tremendous market upheaval, and for the United States in particular, which grows about 75 percent of GM crops. I think some statistics show that the United States has now lost about 96 percent of the corn market in Europe. That's hundreds of millions of dollars. About one billion dollars in sales of soybeans have been lost as well to Europe. Many more nations are thinking of restrictions on these products, and labeling measures. Companies like Gerber, as you mentioned, have restricted the use of GM inputs to their foods. And grain buyers like Archer Daniels Midlands want to segregate these crops.

CURWOOD: So what does all this mean for farmers?

CARTY: Well, for farmers it's creating a lot of confusion and forcing them to make some tough decisions. This is the time of year, by the way, when they're deciding what to plant in the spring. I went down to see a farmer to try to figure out how he was making that decision. I went to see a man by the name of Stan Vanden Bosch in eastern Ontario here. And he actually grows some genetically-modified corn. He likes it. He says it helps him fight the corn bore. But he's not going to grow any genetically-modified soya, and that's because he now gets a bonus if it's GM-free. But he has to assure the buyer that it is GM-free, and so he has to test it. And Stan Vanden Bosch took me out to his barn to show me how he does that.

(A door opens; a buzz in the background)

VANDENBOSCH: Okay, we've got a kit here that we can check soybeans as to whether or not they are genetically-enhanced or the regular soybeans.

CARTY: That's the soybean there.

VANDENBOSCH: Yes. Visually you can't tell any difference. We take and crush a bean up and add a few drops of a solution to it, and then we put in a piece of material that looks almost like litmus paper. If the soybean is genetically-enhanced, we'll get two small red lines. If just one red line appears, then it's non-GM soybeans.

CARTY: Stan, how do you feel about the debate about safety of genetically-modified foods?

VANDENBOSCH: I consider them safe at this point.

CARTY: So your decisions as to what to plant, what not to plant, are based on what?

VANDENBOSCH: Strictly on what our customers are going to want in the coming year. And at the moment, that's up in the air.

CARTY: That's Stan Vanden Bosch, a farmer in Eastern Ontario. And I should mention, Steve, that he's not the only one who feels things are up in the air. A straw poll of some American farmers suggested that plantings of GM crops this year will be down 15 to 25 percent.

CURWOOD: Wow. This is really a meltdown of the market for these products for the biotech companies. How are they responding to this?

CARTY: Some people in the industry are now admitting, Steve, that there was a mistake made in how these crops were sold, or how they were packaged, how they were presented to the public. The first generation of GM crops was designed to supposedly benefit the farmer, would mean that he would use less pesticides or he'd get better output, better yield. Those claims, by the way, are now being disputed by some new data. But the point is that the first generation of GM products was supposed to benefit the farmer and not the consumer. There's nothing in it for the consumer. It's not a healthier food. It's not a cheaper food. So why put it in your mouth?

CURWOOD: So what's the solution?

CARTY: From the point of view of the biotech companies, the solution is to create a new generation of GM foods that do have something for the consumer. I talked to a stock market analyst about this very point. He's Jim Wilbur with the firm of Solomon Smith Barney in New York City. And he says companies like Monsanto, which have lost about a third of their stock market value in recent months, can still turn things around if they introduce these kinds of new generation products. Here's Jim Wilbur.

WILBUR: If consumers understand that by, you know, eating soybeans, for example, they can lower their cholesterol, and if the benefits of those soybeans have been created through a biotechnology, you can then trade off the risk against the reward of a longer life. So we think that as the benefits in the food, as the higher nutrition become more apparent, then there will be an improvement in the whole view of what this business can offer.

CARTY: And that's Jim Wilbur, a senior stock analyst with Solomon Smith Barney in New York.

CURWOOD: Now, what do you think is the outlook or the future of genetically-modified foods, given this international diplomatic atmosphere?

CARTY: I think they're going to have a lull for two or three years, until this next generation comes along. In that time there may be new science that either proves them safer or proves them more hazardous than we expect. In any event, I think the nations of the world will continue doing what they're doing now -- that is, setting some limits on how these products are traded around the world, which in any case will be necessary because the Protocol will take years to implement.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a reporter with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Thanks, Bob.

CARTY: You're welcome, Steve.



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