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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

UN Biotech Treaty Moves Ahead

MONTREAL -- Negotiators have made progress toward resolving some of the issues that have blocked a treaty on international traffic in genetically modified organisms, delegates to a United Nations conference said in Montreal.

"The sun may just be starting to peek through in these negotiations,'' David Sandalow, who heads the U.S. delegation, said Tuesday.

Delegates reported progress in how the protocol would apply to commodity shipments and which types of genetically modified products would be exempt from the rules.

For almost a year, the Biosafety Protocol has been vexed by disagreements pitting developing nations against the United States and a handful of other agricultural exporters. Meetings in Cartagena, Colombia, in February broke off after six countries, including the United States, blocked a draft that was approved by the other 125 delegations.

"The outcome here could be even more positive than the proposal that didn't make it in Cartagena,'' Canadian head delegate Richard Ballhorn said Tuesday.

Canada is one of the five countries that joined the United States in opposing the Cartagena agreement. The other four are Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Australia.

Negotiators agreed Tuesday to begin discussing how the UN protocol would relate to the World Trade Organization and other international agreements - possibly the thorniest issue on the agenda.

The United States prefers a treaty that would allow countries to refuse genetically modified products only if a scientific risk assessment showed that environmental damage could occur, much as World Trade Organization rules currently do.

But developing countries and environmentalists would like to see a broader agreement that gives countries the right to refuse shipments of genetically modified products simply because their environmental effects are unknown.

Environmentalists worry that genetically modified organisms could wreak havoc on the environment. If genetically modified crops were to escape into the environment they could outcompete native plants, spread resistance to pesticides and antibiotics to weeds and pests, or expose beneficial organisms to toxins.

Last year, a Cornell University study found that monarch butterflies are poisoned by corn genetically modified to produce Bt toxin, a natural pesticide.

Genetically modified food products are already an enormous business. In the United States, a large percentage of crops are already genetically engineered, and an estimated 70 million acres of modified crops were planted worldwide in 1999. Genetically engineered fish, trees and bacteria are also entering the marketplace.