by Martin Khor

Seattle, 2 Dec 99 -- A decision by the European Commission to agree to the US-led proposal to establish a new WTO working party on biotechnology has generated a storm of protests not only from environment and development NGOs but also from European Ministers of Environment.

Five European Environment Ministers on Wednesday expressed opposition to a WTO Biotech Working Group, saying it would undermine the Biosafety Protocol. By evening, Environment Ministers from 15 European countries were reported to have voiced opposition. This has created a confusing situation and possibly a crisis within the European Union on the second day of the WTO Ministerial Conference.

The controversy within the EU has made it more difficult to assess the chances of the proposal succeeding.

[India's Minister for Commerce and Industry, Mr. Murasoli Maran, told Indian newsmen at the conference, Wednesday evening, that India was opposed to any working group at the WTO on biotechnology. If there is an issue to be studied, it should be done within the UN Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) where there is ongoing work on a biosafety protocol, Maran said.]

Many developing countries have been opposing the proposal since it was first put forward by Canada and Japan at the Geneva preparatory talks last month. Speaking at a preparatory meeting in Geneva, the developing countries argued that the move would undermine the prospects of setting up an international biosafety protocol under the Biodiversity Convention, and that current WTO rules were adequate to deal with biotechnology products. Switzerland and Norway had joined the opposition while the EC had reserved its position, stating that this would depend on the whole negotiating package. In Seattle, the United States has made it a high priority for the Ministerial to establish a "working party in the area of agricultural products of new technologies" to examine such products and the conditions under which they are traded, to identify restrictions that have adverse effects on trade. The Group would have two phases, firstly for "identification and examination" by the Fourth Ministerial meeting, and secondly to develop WTO disciplines with respect to approval processes for such products as part of the new round. At the start of the Ministerial, an EC document dated 29 November (which presented its own version of a Ministerial Declaration) listed "biotechnology related issues" under the category "immediate decisions at Seattle."

This proposed a working party with a fact-finding mandate on the relationship between trade, development, health, consumer and environmental issues in the area of modern biotechnology. The group would work in two phases: firstly an identification and examination phase by the Fourth Ministerial and secondly, to present recommendations to clarify these issues.

The EC proposal drew considerable anger from environment and development groups which saw it as an act of betrayal of the Biosafety Protocol as well as to the EU countries' commitment to environmental and safety measures regarding genetic engineering. Groups such as WWF, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace also issued statements and organized meetings as well as lobbied European environment authorities.

Third World NGOs also alerted their official delegations about the latest developments.

Meanwhile, the US delegation continued to lobby other countries to accept the biotechnology working party as part of the Declaration.

The first sign of internal stress within the EU came with a statement on Wednesday afternoon by Environment Ministers from Denmark, United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Italy, which said that after meeting informally in Seattle, they expressed opposition to the establishment of a WTO Working Group on Biotechnology.

The reasons they gave for this opposition were that:

* The proper forum for deciding a multilateral approach to biotechnology issues is the process to agree to a Biosafety Protocol. "This process would be undermined by the establishment of a WTO Working Group."

* A main EU priority for trade and environment negotiations is to clarify the interface between MEAs and WTO rules. "A WTO Biotechnology Working Group would run directly counter to this key objective by potentially subordinating the Biosafety Protocol negotiations to discussions in the Round, thereby setting a precedent for the WTO's relationship with other MEAs."

* Biotechnology issues will arise naturally in some areas of the negotiations, there is thus no need for a specific Working Group.

According to European sources, by Wednesday night, Environment Ministers of 15 EU member states had expressed opposition to the EC decision to propose a biotechnology working party. This had been conveyed to the EC, which has the competence to negotiate at the WTO on behalf of the EU.

Late on Wednesday, apparently in response to the growing opposition by EU Environment Ministers to its decision, the EC issued a statement that Europe is not a demander for a WTO biotech working group and that "our priority remains to complete successfully and quickly" a Biosafety Protocol.

"But we have committed ourselves to be open-minded about all issues which others want to discuss in the coming round, and various players notably the US and Canada, have raised biotechnology as a trade issue."

The statement said there is room for a "fact-finding exercise" in the WTO to address biotech-related issues, but this work should proceed only if it draws on inputs from other fora including the Biosafety Protocol, and all concerned ( notably the US and the Miami Group) commit to early conclusions of the biosafety talks.

The EC statement also said "we reject requests to deal with biotech exclusively on trade grounds, we reject a market access negotiations for GMOs, we reject any attempt to undermine the EU right to regulate, and we reject any attempt to derail, divert or delay the biosafety talks."

The statement was apparently aimed at placating the feelings of the EU's Environment Ministers as well as the NGOs, but is bound to generate more controversy.

Meanwhile, at a press conference of Ministers of Environment organized by UNEP on Wednesday afternoon, the issue of the working group on biotechnology was raised by several journalists. Questions were raised as to whether the acceptance of a working group on biotechnology within the WTO would frustrate the future of the ongoing Biosafety Protocol negotiations.

In response, Dr. Tweolde Berhan Egziabher, General Manager of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency, who is chairman of the African Group and chief spokesperson of the Like Minded Group of developing countries in the Biosafety Protocol talks said: "Negotiations in the biosafety protocol are in trouble because trade issues were brought in. Let us wait for the 'other forum' [referring to the Biosafety Protocol negotiations] to deal with it," he said.

He also emphasized that "those who want a Biosafety Protocol should oppose this (ie the proposal for a WTO working group) by all means".

Mr. Jesper Simonsen, Deputy Environment Minister of Norway echoed Dr. Tewolde's viewpoint. He said: "On the working group on GMOs, more competent organizations should deal with it and the WTO should not go into it. There is an impression that the trade perspective could swallow all other policies."

He asserted that "If we have a working group on biotechnology in the WTO, we would not have a Biosafety Protocol."

In a press release, Greenpeace reported that high-level officials from EU member states were expressing their irritation in the corridors of the WTO meeting. It said European Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler had stepped out of his agreed mandate and made a deal with the US before checking with member states.

Greenpeace said if Fischer's position prevails, the WTO will obstruct the Biosafety Protocol. "Fischler is inviting the fox into the chicken coop. He will have a lot of explaining to do to the millions of citizens across Europe and the rest of the world who demand the right to choose not to swallow GM food." (SUNS4565)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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