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Monday, 24 January, 2000, 15:23 GMT
Montreal: The arguments

protestors Protests mount in the run-up to the Montreal talks




Who is holding the talks?

They're being held by the United Nations, and involve all the countries that have signed the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This was established at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil. It tries to safeguard the variety of the Earth's different life forms, which are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates, largely because of human expansion.

What are the talks trying to achieve?

They aim to agree a biosafety protocol, which would allow governments to regulate the international trade in genetically-modified organisms (GMOs - the Montreal meeting refers to them as "living modified organisms", LMOs). Regulation would be possible on environmental or health grounds. The talks also aim to set rules on who should be liable if something went wrong and on the labelling of GMOs.

Why should governments not be allowed to regulate the trade? That sounds quite reasonable.

Perhaps it does. But a few countries say that regulating the trade through the proposed protocol could amount to restraining free trade. They want the protocol's effect limited, by making it subordinate to the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

What's wrong with that?

Most of the countries which have signed the biodiversity convention say the protocol should have equal force with the WTO. They say the WTO and all international environmental agreements should be treated equally, otherwise there is little point in having treaties to protect anything apart from free trade.

So how many countries are arguing for the WTO to be supreme?

Six, known as the Miami Group - the US, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Australia. They prevented agreement on finalising the protocol in the Colombian city of Cartagena in February 1999.

So six members can frustrate the wishes of the 160 or so countries that want the protocol to be on a par with the WTO?

Yes - except that one of the six, the US, has not signed the biodiversity convention, so it is not a member at all. The UK Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, said of the US role in Montreal: "It's an extraordinary situation. But that's the way the world is." All six Miami Group members are big agricultural exporters, and so have a disproportionate influence. Anyway, the remaining members are not entirely united. Most of the developing countries want a much stronger protocol.

The European Union opposes giving the WTO supremacy. The EU also says that importing countries should have the right to refuse access to GMOs, not only seeds but also processed goods like flour, animal feed and so on.

So Montreal is headed for failure, just like Cartagena?

Not necessarily. Public opinion has moved a long way since last February, both in the US and in Europe. Many farmers are themselves concerned that GMOs may not make good business sense. So things could be different this time round.

But it is still a case of the US throwing its weight around?

It is certainly using its influence even though it is not a member. But its supporters say it is arguing not only in the interest of US trade. It is also anxious, they say, to stand up for genetically-modified products, because it believes they could be important to the world.

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22 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
GM food clash looms

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