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Montreal GM Protocol - The Devil Is In The Detail

Saturday's landmark Montreal Biosafety Protocol which regulates trade in genetically modified organisms establishes a framework for countries to use when making decisions about genetically modified crops. But there are a couple of fish-hooks in it. John Howard reports.

More than 130 countries in Montreal reached a landmark decision early on Saturday to regulate trade in genetically modified organisms. The agreement must be ratified by 50 countries before it goes into effect.

It strikes a delicate balance between the interests of major exporters of genetically modified crops such as the US and Canada, and importers in the EU and developing countries, who had expressed concerns about the health and environmental impact of the new food varieties.

The term "genetically modified organisms" refers to plants and animals containing genes transferred from other species to produce certain characteristics, such as resistance to certain pests and herbicides.

Fish-hook number one - There is no specific requirement that farmers or the grain industry segregate conventional and modified crops. The US won that one on the basis that to segregate would cost billions of dollars.

Fish-hook number two - The agreement contains a "savings clause" which emphasises the new pact does not override rights and obligations under other international agreement's, including the World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

With its language on the "precautionary principle" the proposed Biosafety Protocol agreement could have set the stage for countries to close their markets to genetically modified crops without conclusive scientific evidence of harm. The "savings clause" was introduced to stop that.

Therefore, if New Zealanders decide they are not ready and willing to accept genetically engineered organisms, then, unless that decision is based on proper "scientific appraisal and risk assessment" under the WTO rules, we could have a claim bought against us in the WTO.

A decision cannot be based on emotion, or simply that we don't want it, because that would breach WTO rules.

"If a dispute arises over a country's decision to close a market to a food product, the WTO will review the protocol before making a ruling," European Commission Environment Minister Margot Wallstrom said.

Once the protocol goes into effect, which could take two or three years, commodity shipments that could contain GMO's will have to be labelled " may contain" genetically modified organisms.

At that point, a new round of negotiations on more specific labelling requirements will also have to begin, with the requirement of finishing in two years.

Like most documents - the devil is in the detail.

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