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2000-03-20
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 their corporations?

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. 

Thank you.

(Notes by Martin Frid, AEC)


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