London (June 6th, 2005) – Hopes entertained by some people for a strict global liability regime for regulating trade, trans-boundary movements and “damage” caused by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have receded (1).

The issue turns on whether the proposed liability regime based on the spirit of the Cartagena Protocol can have the ultimate competent authority to resolve disputes. That protocol gives authority to restrict imports of GMOs even in case of lack of full scientific certainty of the damage (2).

The protocol also requires genetically modified (GM) food, feed, products containing traces of GMOs and processed GMOs to be subjected to international standards regarding transport, packaging and labelling. There are, therefore, two differing principles relating to trans-boundary trade in GMOs. Here the main issue is that after a liability regime is put in place as specified by the Cartagena Protocol, whose authority on the issue will prevail - WTO’s dispute settlement body or the mechanism under the new liability regime? These matters were discussed last week in Montreal.

The EU, with disagreement among Member States about proposed liability schemes, now say it is now not in favour of an "international legally-binding instrument." One official said: "The EU is pressing for developing a regime in the form of an agreed decision which may later become the basis for consideration of a legally binding instrument."

Meanwhile, the EU is again in deadlock over a GM crop approval, this time about maize, 1507, made jointly by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont Co., and Dow AgroSciences unit Mycogen Seeds (3). The strain is engineering to be both herbicide-tolerant and resistant to the European corn borer. The application was for use as an ingredient in food, appearing in products such as starch, flour and corn syrups. Maize is used more in animal feed than as food. Eight countries (Britain, Estonia, Finland, France, Ireland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands) voted in favour, nine (Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Portugal and Slovenia) against and eight abstained. The vote was thus inconclusive so the decision devolves to the Council of Ministers and, if they cannot agree (the usual state of affairs), the Commission will decide.

Back in the UK, one of Sunday papers yesterday reported that the EU Trade Commissioner is pressing for new GM foods and crops to be eaten and planted across Europe, and wants to accelerate the approval of more modified crops and products. The Commissioner’s office declined to comment. In response, some of the usual suspects made some of their usual comments (4).

Finally, two reports from Switzerland disagree about the feasibility of GM and conventional crops coexisting (5). In a study sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund, the Research Institute for Biological (i.e. “organic”) Cultivation (FiBL) in Frick says that coexistence would not be possible for maize, rapeseed and wheat. The Confederate Research Institute for Agro Ecology and Cultivation (Agroscope FAL), which has been evaluating the situation for the Federal Office of Agriculture, has reached an opposite conclusion.
The main bone of contentions were the separation distances: FiBL thinks that they would need to be more than 1 km, 600 m. and 100 m., respectively, for the three crops. Agroscope FAL considered minimum margins of 50 m. for maize, 50 - 400 meters for rapeseed (depending on the species) and no safety margin for wheat, to be more than sufficient.

The FAL researchers state that, from a scientific point of view, nothing should oppose the cultivation of genetically modified corn, rapeseed and wheat next to traditional agriculture. However, farmers who would decide to grow genetically modified crops would be required to take actions to ensure the mandatory separation of genetically modified and traditional crops. And in practice, there would also have to be arrangements made between farmers regarding the choice of fields.

Sources:

1. Ashok B Sharma (June 2nd, 2005). EU dashes hopes of global liability regime on GMOs. Financial Express (http://www.agbios.com/main.php?action=ShowNewsItem&id=6555)

2. Ashok B Sharma (May 30th, 2005). Need to set up a global liability regime for GMOs. Financial Express (http://www.financialexpress.com/fe_full_story.php?content_id=92351)

3. Jeremy Smith (June 3rd, 2005). EU in deadlock over new GMO approval. Reuters (http://today.reuters.com/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=scienceNews&storyID=2005-06-03T153233Z_01_N0316816_RTRIDST_0_SCIENCE-FOOD-EU-GMO-DC.XML)

4. Geoffrey Lean (June 5th, 2005). Mandelson wants to fast-track GM. Independent on Sunday (http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/environment/story.jsp?story=644299)

5. Michael Hagmann (June 2nd, 2005). Reports differ on coexistence of GM crops. Sonntagszeitung (http://www.checkbiotech.org/root/index.cfm?fuseaction=news&doc_id=10462&start=1&control=219&page_start=1&page_nr=101&pg=1)


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