by Mark Bourrie

Montreal, Canada, 29 Jan 2000 (IPS) -- After four days of closed door sessions, environment ministers and trade negotiators from 138 countries have reached a tentative agreement on an accord to regulate the trade in genetically modified organisms used in food production.

"This agreement meets the challenge of establishing effective science-based risk assessment and regulatory regimes while respecting the concerns of the developing world," Canadian Environment Minister David Anderson said in a statement early Saturday morning.

Negotiators had struggled for five years to forge a deal that would regulate the burgeoning biotechnology industry with an international protocol.

One particular sticking point was the so-called precautionary principle, which would allow countries to ban imports of genetically modified products they consider unsafe.

A conference in Cartagena, Colombia, collapsed last year when the U.S. and five other countries rejected a deal that had been approved by all other countries. The accord reached here will be known as the Cartagena Protocol. There already is a major environmental treaty called the Montreal Protocol, negotiated in 1987, which deals with ozone-depleting chemicals.

Signing and ratification of the Cartegena protocol will take place over the next few years, but delegates agreed to act quickly to begin implementation.

The new treaty will allow countries some powers to limit the import of genetically-modified foods. However, signatory countries must abide by World Trade Organization rules requiring government regulation of GMO to be based on sound science.

There are also clear procedures to be followed for documenting GMOs as they are shipped across borders. This clause was resisted by exporters including the United States, arguing that labelling was too cumbersome and too costly. Labelling rules will be re-evaluated after three years, according to the new pact.

Environmentalists protested their exclusion from the meetings. In rallies in Montreal and Ottawa, they demanded a say at the conference and called for a treaty that would force all foods produced with GMOs to be labelled.

Advocacy groups cite studies done by groups such as the British Medical Association which argue G-M foods could have dire consequences to human health.

They want a new testing system independent of the industry.

Both sides in the GMO debate lobbied delegates fiercely.

Greenpeace negotiators spent two hours Friday pressing the Canadian delegation for tougher rules, while, nearby, representatives of multinational agricultural companies, university professors and farmers pushed their agenda with the U.S. negotiators.

North American agri-businesses claim the dispute over genetically modified foods is merely a convenient trade barrier set up by the European Union.

The Montreal agreement was reached late Friday night, hours after delegates said that they feared that the negotiations would end in deadlock.

Environmentalists accused Canada, the U.S. and four other food-exporting countries of blocking progress to regulate the trade in genetically modified food such as herbicide-resistant grain crops and slow-ripening tomatoes.

In Great Britain, where there has been a public backlash against GMOs, consumers have called them "Frankenfood" and some major food store chains have banned them. Nestle U.K. and Unilever U.K. have announced they will not use GMOs in their products.

However, environmentalists fear that, unless the products are labelled, people who oppose GMOs won't be able to avoid them.

The European Union has taken a strong stance on this issue, going so far as to propose a moratorium on approving G-M foods. Britain has gone one step further, putting a moratorium on the commercial growth of G-M crops until the spring of 2003, allowing time for a panel of independent scientists to examine the issue.

The United States and Canada are among the six countries called the Miami Group, which wanted loose regulations for genetically modified foods and crops, while most of the other countries are pressing for tighter controls.

The Miami Group appears to have won its fight against countries that wanted the onus of proof of the safety of GMOs to rest with their creators.

Instead, the accord places this scientific burden on the importing country.

"On balance, we think this is an agreement that protects the environment without disrupting world trade," David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans, Environment and Science, told reporters. The Montreal pact would require shipments of genetically modified commodities to have labels saying they "may contain" genetically modified organisms and are not intended for intentional introduction into the environment.

Signatory countries would also be required to begin negotiations on more specific labelling rules to take effect no later than two years after the protocol enters into force. (SUNS4596)