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2000-01-26

US Opposes Effort to Expand Biosafety Pact

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The United States is opposing efforts by developing countries to expand the scope of a proposed agreement to regulate trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs). [includes rush transcript]

The opposition comes as 360 delegates from 134 countries met in Montreal for fresh talks aimed at agreeing on a Biosafety Protocol. If ratified, the protocol will produce an agreement among the world’s main trading blocs on rules governing the international movement of genetically altered organisms.

Guests:

  • Benny Herlin, Head of the Genetic Engineering Campaign at Greenpeace International.
  • Agent Poptart, Spokesperson for "Les Entartistes," the Montreal group equivalent to the Biotic Baking Brigade. This past Friday he pied Joyce Groote, President of BIOTECanada and president of the World Coalition of the Biotechnology Industry. The group also pied Allan Rock, Canada’s Minister of Health, during the conference in Montreal.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

The United States is opposing efforts by developing countries to expand the scope of a proposed agreement to regulate trade in genetically modified organisms, what’s known as GMOs. The opposition comes as more than 360 delegates from 134 countries meet in Montreal for fresh talks aimed at agreeing on a biosafety protocol. If ratified, the protocol would produce an agreement among the world’s main trading blocs on rules governing the international movement of genetically altered organisms.

Repeated efforts to reach such an accord have stalled over the past five years amidst major disagreements between the US, Canada and its grain-exporting allies, which oppose much of the regulation and environmental controls of the trade of GMOs in a group of countries that has included developing nations and the European Union. Similar talks held last year in Cartagena, Colombia, were suspended when the US and Canada refused to agree with other countries’ proposed biosafety regulations.

Meanwhile, during the talks in Montreal, Greenpeace has charged the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. with failing to protect the public health and the environment by approving a genetically engineered bacteria without adequate testing and against the advice of its own scientists. This happened in 1997. One member of the EPA’s Biotechnology Scientific Advisory Committee resigned in protest of the process. Shortly after that, scientists from the EPA published a whistleblower report criticizing the agency’s approval of the genetically engineered bacteria.

Well, we’re joined right now by Benny Herlin. He is head of the genetic engineering campaign at Greenpeace International and is in Montreal for this international meeting. Welcome to Democracy Now!

BENNY HERLIN:

Hello.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, it’s good to be with you. Can you start by talking about what this genetically engineered bacteria is?

BENNY HERLIN:

It is a risobium, and this risobia form a cooperation with certain plants called legumes, such as alfalfa or soybean, to fix nitrogen in the soil. They inhabit the roots of these plants, and the bacterium we are talking about is one of those that have been designed to enhance the yield for farmers. This has been done for quite awhile with practical breeding of such efficient risobia, as opposed to less efficient risobia. Risobia are in all soil, but farmers want their specific high-yielding risobia. And this was the first one that has been genetically engineered, actually. And the company has sought approval in 1995, and after this whistleblower report you talked about had been issued, the EPA initially said, “Well, we will put it on indefinite hold, the approval,” but that only meant that they would duck and wait for two more years, and in 1997, without any additional substantial review of the problematic of this risobium, they have approved it. So it is now commercialized since three years in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN:

Why did the EPA approve this without the support of the scientists?

BENNY HERLIN:

Well, this is the question to probably put to the EPA in the first place. Our impression is that the EPA was and still is under enormous pressure to be seen as what you would call probably a “can do” agency, an agency that delivers for the industry and does not hold up regulation, but with regulation processes. This is my impression. I have no evidence of any direct intervention of the company or something like this.

AMY GOODMAN:

Benny Herlin, can you talk about what’s been going in Montreal this week?

BENNY HERLIN:

What has gone on so far is civil servants meeting in constantly changing clusters and groups and trying to find a solution to basically five contentious plans with the Miami group, as it is called. This is, as you said, the United States, USA, Argentina, which are the only three countries in the world that export GMOs at this moment, plus allies from Australia, Uruguay and Chile. And their position is basically, nyet, nyet, nyet, just like Krushchev in the UN forty years ago. They would not agree on any compromise on the question of what should be regulated, how should it be regulated, and who should be held liable should something go wrong.

AMY GOODMAN:

I’m looking at a piece in the Washington Post from just a few days ago, from Monday, and it talks about the importance of genetic engineering, in terms of feeding the world’s population, and says last week, for example, researchers announced they had created a new golden rice that contains transplanted genes to combat vitamin A deficiencies that can cause blindness in millions of children around the globe. What’s wrong with genetically engineering a golden rice that can get rid of blindness?

BENNY HERLIN:

Well, the case of golden rice is a good example of what I would call "PR genetic engineering." Obviously, the companies have a problem to explain to citizens why this was necessary at all. And so, the golden rice is a welcome example.

The idea of the golden rice is to combat a vitamin A and also an iron deficiency, which comes from malnutrition and especially hurts children and also mothers. And the first thing you have to say is that it is not treating the cause, of course. The cause is simply poverty and no access to fresh legumes or any animals to eat, where there is ample —where there is enough vitamin A. And the second thing to say is that the WHO, the World Health Organization, is conducting a program to fight this vitamin A deficiency since nearly fifteen years now. They are lacking funding, and that’s the only reason why vitamin A deficiency is still such a major problem. It costs them around two cents per child or woman or whoever to fight this vitamin A deficiency. They don’t have this money. There are plenty of conventional methods with no genetic engineering available to overcome the vitamin A deficiency as long as it exists. Obviously, the longer term solution is simply to give those people access to a more balanced diet, and also vitamin A deficiency is only the peak of the iceberg of a whole variety of deficiency even the golden rice would not combat.

Now, it has been engineered into a rice. This rice is yellow, and that will pose a major problem, because especially in less educated regions, people will simply refuse to eat yellow rice, because they are used to white rice. Also an overdose of vitamin A can also cause problems, so if that was the only food these poor people get, they will create additional problems. And finally, what is not said in all these reports is that the commercialization of this rice realistically is a minimum of five, more likely seven to ten, years away from now. So there is a solution, an instant solution now, which costs a little money, and this is not employed, and instead they come with a techno fix in the sky of this golden rice, which actually does not address the real problem.

AMY GOODMAN:

Benny Herlin, what about the people who are representing the different countries at this meeting in Montreal? You’ve got the environmental ministers of the European Union. In contrast, the US has sent only lower level civil servants. The chief of the US delegation is David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science.

BENNY HERLIN:

This is correct. At the moment, we expect fifty environment ministers altogether to attend this meeting, which shows that a lot of countries are really taking this serious. It took us some effort to convince the Canadian minister for the environment, the representative of the hosting country, to come to the meeting at all. We have succeeded in getting him to Montreal now. We have certainly not succeeded to get any higher ranking officials from the United States, and this clearly expresses the attitude of the United States to this protocol. My feeling is that the United States administration at this point does not regard this as a democratic procedure between equal countries, but rather as something where they send a civil servant to tell the rest of the world what to do.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re also joined on the phone, in addition to Benny Herlin of Greenpeace, by Agent Poptart, who is a spokesperson for Les Entartistes, a Montreal group equivalent to the Biotic Baking Brigade out on the West Coast. This past Friday, Agent Poptart pied Joyce Groote, president of BIOTECanada and president of the World Coalition of the Biotechnology Industry, as well as some other people. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Agent Poptart.

AGENT POPTART:

Yes, Hello. Gloop! Gloop!

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you tell us who you hit this week?

AGENT POPTART:

Yes, actually, we kind of had a — well, still having an anti-GMO week. So we started on Friday with, as you said, Joyce Groote, who is the president of BIOTECanada and president of the Worldwide Coalition of the Industry of Biotechnology. And on Monday morning, still on the same subject, we got Allan Rock, Minister of Health Canada.

AMY GOODMAN:

Why? And what are you hitting them with?

AGENT POPTART:

Well, first of all, for Joyce Groote, we used fast foods, canned cream, so basically there was probably some GMOs in it. But we thought that she wouldn’t mind, basically that she would be used to it. And also we are very proud to announce that we were the first ones to voluntarily label our genetic modified food, because on the back of the plate was written “Bio Pie,” so we labeled it voluntarily, which we can’t say as much for everybody in North America. So we pied her, basically for the position that she is representing inside, as well, like if you go into BIOTECanada today, they represent, as well, university research and development, so tax money goes into this, and they represent as well a huge company like Monsanto, like Glaxo Wellcome, like Beecham, like, you know, like all those really nice companies. And so, basically we went there because they still stick to — well, first of all we are against the fact that they are still proposing the voluntarily labeling measure, because obviously it’s not working, because there are no GMO products that are being labeled in North America at this moment, and that measure has been proposed for a few years now, and secondly, for the precaution principle, as well.

And then, during the conference, Ms. Groote was saying that we wouldn’t necessarily as citizens need to add the label on the genetically modified food, because Health Canada has approved all of this. So on Monday morning, we went to see Mr. Rock, and Mr. Rock is also, with Canadians, very concerned — I don’t know if you’ve heard — with the cigarette packs, because he forces cigarette makers to have huge labels on the cigarette packs, and now he wants to have like burned lungs and stuff like this on the packs. And we were asking Mr. Rock if he thought that this measure would work with cigarette manufacturers if it was voluntarily. So we kind of find that his position is quite irresponsible as Minister of Health Canada.

AMY GOODMAN:

Which is why you pied him. What did you pie him with?

AGENT POPTART:

We had a meringue lemon pie.

AMY GOODMAN:

And what was his response?

AGENT POPTART:

Oh, well, actually, Mr. Allan Rock reacted very, very well, so in that sense it’s all in his honor. He didn’t take it badly at all. Mrs. Groote, I think, took it a little more badly, and we haven’t seen the images around at all really here for Mrs. Groote. It’s not the first time we’ve seen that kind of censorship. We had the Montreal stock market, stock exchange president, and at that time also, as well, the pictures, they didn’t like pass around on TV and everything. And it’s a bit the same thing now with Groote, because I think we’ve touched a powerful lobby.

AMY GOODMAN:

Have you ever been charged with assault?

AGENT POPTART:

Yes, we have. We’re going on trial on March 31st and on April 6th for Stephane Dion, which is the Minister of Intergovernment Affairs. He came to a place called [inaudible], which is basically a place where poor people go and have some cheap food, and he was there to give away food to those people, and we thought that that was quite a thing, being in a government that just makes people poorer all the time, so we went there to give him his dessert at the time. And he’s basically one of the only one that complained in fourteen pies we’ve had so far here.

AMY GOODMAN:

In addition to the pieing, environmental activists erected a giant ear of corn with jaws in front of the Civil Aviation Organization building in downtown Montreal, where the International Biosafety Conference is taking place, in protest of the growing international use of genetically engineered foods and crops. Benny Herlin, what’s happening now in Montreal, though there are hundreds of protesters, does not, to say the least, compare to the Battle in Seattle. Why the difference?

AGENT POPTART:

Well, I couldn’t really say, first of all, but I think that people are not as informed —

AMY GOODMAN: This is Agent Poptart.

AGENT POPTART:

— when it comes to GMO food, and you can see that, when we went to the conference on Friday to pie Mrs. Groote, some people, some citizens were there and wanted to get in, just because they wanted to have information on this, because we’re not really all that informed.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you both very much for joining us. We have been talking to Benny Herlin, head of the Genetic Engineering Campaign at Greenpeace International in Montreal, as well as Agent Poptart, spokesperson for Les Entartistes, the Montreal equivalent of the Biotic Baking Brigade, which has pied some of the biotech representatives, as well as Canada’s Minister of Health this week, during the international conference to write rules on the world’s ever expanding trade in genetically altered organisms. Can I get any websites from either of you?

AGENT POPTART:

Yes, ours is a bit complicated, but if you go to any research engine, search engine, you will find it at Les Entartistes.

AMY GOODMAN:

And that’s “Entartistes.”

AGENT POPTART:

Yeah, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN:

And Benny Herlin, Greenpeace?

BENNY HERLIN:

It’s pretty simple. It’s www.greenpeace.org.

AMY GOODMAN:

That’s www.greenpeace.org.

AGENT POPTART:

Thank you very much. Gloop! Gloop!

AMY GOODMAN:

Bye.

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