Interview with Phil Bereano: Part II

By Matt Styslinger

This is the second part in a three-part interview with Phil Bereano. For part one of this interview see: Interview with Phil Bereano: Part I.

You are closely involved with the international negotiations to govern genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Can you tell us the current status of those talks?

Phil Bereano has been an active and outspoken proponent of democratic social ethics in technology for decades. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

We have the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, now with 160 member countries—which doesn’t include the U.S., Canada, or Australia, the major producers of GMOs, because they don’t like the fact that we were able to get language about international regulation of this technology into the Protocol. Member countries are having their fifth Meeting of the Parties (MOP5) in Nagoya, Japan, in October. Biosafety legislation has been passed in various countries, which is helping developing countries build capacity to deal with the oversight and regulation of this technology. But, if it is weak, it may be providing an entrance for GE [genetically engineered] crops.

As one example, I’ve been working over the past six years as an NGO delegate to Protocol meetings, trying to craft an international regime of legal liability for damages caused by GMOs. Hundreds of incidents of damage have already occurred and been documented. There should be a finished liability regime presented for consideration at the Protocol meeting this Fall.

I’ve also been involved in a UN Agency called the Codex Alimentarius, a collaboration of the UN’s World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, which deals with international food laws and regulations. There’s been a 15-year struggle to get international guidelines for GE food labeling, which has been rigorously opposed by the U.S. and some of its allies. I’ll be in attendance at a working group meeting in Brussels in November that will try to resolve some of the issues in the current document, and there will be an annual meeting of the Codex Labeling Committee in May in Quebec City. There’s a decent chance that the negotiations will be resolved by the meeting in May, and some final international guidelines on labeling GE foods will be able to be adopted.

Since the U.S. is the largest producer of GMOs, do you think these decisions will affect domestic trends?

I don’t know how long the U.S. can stay isolated from these world trends. It’s encouraging that in two or three legal cases recently, U.S. courts have required the government and the industry to do actual environmental impact assessments of GE crops, and other court decisions have imposed monetary damages for GE contamination of fields of conventional crops. But there’s no independent regulatory oversight in the U.S. whatsoever; the agencies merely accept the industry’s conclusions that there are no problems with the GE crop variety.

The Codex Alimentarius unanimously—including the U.S. and Canada delegations—adopted a set of principles for doing risk assessments for GE foods. The problem is that they’re just guidelines, and no country has to adopt them, so we don’t know whether they are having an impact. Codex no longer asks governments to inform it of adoptions, since countries never did so when the organization had such a rule. Certainly the U.S. has not adopted assessment procedures such as those urged by the Codex.

How does the UN’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety address the potential risks associated with GMOs?

This treaty provides for countries to impose a requirement of “advanced informed agreement (AIA)” before receiving imports of GMOs, and it outlines general principles and methodology for doing a risk assessment on them for the country to decide whether or not to agree. Every sovereign country has the right to control what crosses its borders. But we need the Protocol because countries that have joined the World Trade Organization have given up the right to control imports in certain circumstances. The Protocol says despite that, it’s okay for governments to have some regulation without it being deemed a “barrier to trade.”

The WTO is not an organ of the UN. How WTO rules and regulations, the UN’s Codex, and the Cartagena Protocol mesh with each other is not clear. The only linkage between them is that in 1995, the WTO decided that the rules of a few specifically named international agencies would be reference points for trade disputes, and one of them was the Codex. So in theory, the Codex guidelines on risk assessments for GE foods or on their labeling would protect countries against being “sued” in the dispute mechanisms of the WTO. The problem is that the Codex only covers foods, and a lot of GMOs are not foods, like cotton. So that’s why we need the Cartagena Protocol, legally speaking. Also, weaker countries need something that they can refer to when they’re under pressure from Monsanto, U.S. trade representatives, U.S. ambassadors, and others to accept GMOs. Wealthy developed countries such as Switzerland and Norway have these rules in place, and perhaps don’t really need the Protocol as much. But most countries in the world are not as powerful, and they do need the strength of numbers provided by the Protocol.

How effective has the Protocol been?

The Cartagena Protocol is an unprecedented treaty on a new technology. It’s one of the first international environmental treaties and is an outcome of the signing of the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. What you have is a treaty that falls within the environmental ministry in most countries. The problem is that sometimes the other ministries in a government don’t see eye-to-eye—the trade ministry might be pushing to adopt GMOs, or the Agricultural Minister might have learned all about GE while studying at a land grant university in the U.S. and has accepted what she or he was told there, that GE is a great idea. So it’s very hard to predict what’s going to come out. It’s dependent on a lot of political factors that may have nothing to do with the substance of the matter. Civil society around the world is mobilizing around these issues—the only way toward a democratic and equitable future.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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