EU Conference on GMO and WTO
February 4, 2000 in Brussels
The conference was opened by Commissioner David Byrne who noted that
consumers have been overlooked as Seattle showed. Consultation with the
public is of essence because "it is the consumer who pays". Byrne also
discussed the new paper on the precautionary principle which he emphasized
is a consumer demand. This conference also followed directly after the
successful Biosafety protocol negotiations in Montreal, which we all were
looking forward to hearing more about. Generally, as one speaker commented,
there is one conference about GMOs in Brussels every week these days!
Mark Cantley from DG Research discussed the genetic "improvement" which
has been dubbed "golden rice" which is now "at the stage of developing
massive benefits" especially for Third World children. However, the speaker
from Aventis had a more modest time line and did not think there would
be any specific consumer benefits from genetic engineering until 2005-2010.
He also stated that the biotech debate has been a real eye-opener for the
industry. H.R. Davies from the EU Scientific Committee of plants reviewed
the current trends. Obviously, everyone wants to get rid of the antibiotic
resistant marker genes. Another topic is vectors (also called promotors)
were researchers are trying to get rid of so-called junk genes.
I had the opportunity to speak for the Association of European Consumers
AEC for the first time in public and I enjoyed it very much as there were
over 350 people in the large Charlemagne Hall. I discussed why consumers
have strong doubts about the WTO agreement as it affects food safety and
our countries' ability to legislate. A large part of my presentation was
devoted to new DNA patent rules and especially the conflicts under the
TRIPs agreement which "tramples over any conception of cultural differences".
I also felt it was important to discuss why we have great doubts about
genetic engineering of animals - and humans - as Europe in the 1930-40ies
experienced tremendous suffering because of similar theories about "race
hygiene" and "improvement" of the genetic code.
Dan Leskien from Friends of the Earth discussed the Biosafety protocol
and the Montreal experience. He was glad that for the first time in international
law the precautionary principle has been clearly written into such an important
document. One serious issue has been how the Biosafety protocol would fit
together with the WTO agreement. He also expressed concern with the Codex
Alimentarius work on biotech labels and emphasized that proper "labeling
depends on segregation, or all foods will be contaminated, more or less."
Volker Matzeit from DG Environ discussed the revision of the GMO regulations
in the EU. 18 crops have been approved but the only one that was not met
with objections was the carnation (a flower!). Georgios Kiriazis from DG
Competition discussed the WTO rules and the Seattle process. He also felt
the TRIPs agreement is a problem for developing countries. In fact, 13
countries in the food-exporting Cairns group that want less barriers to
agricultural trade, are developing countries. Rene von Schomberg from DG
Trade went on to discuss in what ways the legal situatuation now has changed
since Seattle. As it was possible to conclude the negotiations on the Biosafety
protocol, the SPS and TBT agreement will have to be seen more in view of
the consumer. Garcia Azcarate from DG Agri was quite strong in discussing
how the GMO debate is really linked to democracy and choice.
At this point I added that globalisation is certainly happening and
thus the debate should be about "global democracy". In essence, the protests
against GMOs have been a reaction against the sense that we as consumers
had to make a stand against forces that seem to prefer us to be ignorant.
It is also a development of the scientists' role - should they publish
or patent new discoveries? What are their rights? Are scientists really
free to speak out or are they increasingly forced to be money-makers for
To sum up, I would only say that the conference was very optimistic.
Indeed, the good news from Montreal seemed to bring hope into the very
difficult discussion about GMO and WTO. Most speakers seemed to have a
deeper understanding that consumers have an important role to play in the
development of society today. Environmental, health and social considerations
on the risk of global free trade of GMO products are now debated together
with ethical aspects that European consumers feel very strongly about.
(Notes by Martin Frid, AEC)