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ENVIRONMENT: Brazil Still Has Doubts on Labelling of Transgenic Products

Roberto Villar Belmonte

CURITIBA, Brazil, Mar 13 2006 (IPS) - The third meeting of the parties to the global biosafety treaty kicked off Monday in this southern Brazilian city on a certain note of mystery: the 800 negotiators and observers from 116 countries still have no idea what the host country’s position is on the most controversial issue to be negotiated at this gathering: the labelling of transgenic products.

The Brazilian government is deeply divided on whether to back the wording “contains LMOs (living modified organisms)” or “may contain LMOs” for labels on cross-border shipments.

Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva was discussing the matter with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brasilia, the capital, more than 1,300 km from Curitiba, where the five-day meeting of the parties to the Biosafety Protocol – known as the COP-MOP 3 – is taking place.

Minutes before the conference’s opening ceremony on Monday, Claudio Langone, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Environment Ministry (MMA), was informed by telephone of Silva’s meeting with President Lula.

A compromise position, in support of the wording “contains LMOs” but with a gradual implementation deadline of up to four years, is reportedly being negotiated by Lula and the two ministries most directly involved in the matter, namely Agriculture and the Environment, according to informal statements made by Environment Ministry representatives to journalists. An official statement will be issued soon, they added.

Since the second meeting of the parties to the Biosafety Protocol (or Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety) was held in Montreal nine months ago, the Brazilian government has been working to tone down the requirements for identifying the presence of LMOs in exports. In so doing, the authorities have sought to appease the agribusiness sector, while sparking protests from environmentalists.


The debate centres on Article 18-2a of the Biosafety Protocol, which stipulates that LMOs intended for direct use as food or animal feed or for processing must be accompanied by documentation which clearly identifies that they “may contain” living modified organisms and additionally includes a contact point for further information.

The Environment Ministry, with support from environmentalists, backs the working “contains LMOs” as opposed to the “may contain” wording advocated by the Agriculture Ministry and biotechnology institutions.

Agribusiness representatives argue that the costs of identifying LMOs would make Brazil less competitive, because the world’s two other major exporters of soy beans, Argentina and the United States, have not signed the Protocol, and are thus exempt from this requirement.

“The Protocol deals with questions that are too complex to be addressed by only a few sectors or segments of society. The text of the Convention on Biological Diversity (to which the Cartagena Protocol is attached) can provide us with inspiration for successfully negotiating this issue,” said Langone at the first COP-MOP 3 plenary session.

The governments that have signed the Convention recognise the potential offered by modern biotechnology, as long as adequate safety measures are adopted to protect the environment and human health, added the Environment Ministry executive secretary, who functions as a deputy minister.

“Doing the right thing is not easy. These are complex discussions, which involve a wide variety of actors and countries dealing with a subject regarding which there are frequently different values and expectations. Only ongoing, transparent and respectful debate can ensure that all points of view are reflected in the final result, and that is what I expect from this meeting,” he declared.

Brazil’s indecision with respect to the key issue in this debate was criticised at the COP-MOP 3 opening session by Roberto Requiao, governor of Paraná, the southern Brazilian state of which Curitiba is the capital.

“You cannot adopt a dubious attitude and a conciliatory stance when it comes to defending biosafety,” he maintained.

“The labelling of transgenic products does not deserve to be treated irresponsibly. If the false euphemism of ‘may contain’ were to be extended, for example, to products sold in supermarkets, it would be tantamount to labelling a container of preserved meat with the warning that it ‘may contain rotten meat.’ Or governments could be labelled with the warning that they ‘may contain measures contrary to the interests of the environment and the national interests of the population,'”, he remarked.

International environmental watchdog Greenpeace also lambasted the Brazilian government’s lack of resolve.

“Secretary Langone’s statements clearly demonstrated the Brazilian government’s inconsistencies. On the one hand, it appeals to the principle of precaution and the need for safety mechanisms, but on the other, it says that civil society neees to more clearly define what it wants and understand that there are many interests at stake,” said Marcelo Furtado, a Greenpeace campaign coordinator in Brazil.

“If it doesn’t change its position, Brazil will destroy the Cartagena Protocol and end up creating a Protocol of Bio-Unsafety,” he quipped.

The chairperson of COP-MOP 3, Fatimah Raya Nasron of Malaysia, asked for an extra effort by the negotiators in her statements during the opening session. She also referred to the failure to adopt a decision at the Montreal meeting on the identification of LMOs in the transportation of cross-border shipments.

“I suggest that everyone make a commitment to resolving these pending issues here in Curitiba. If we maintain our focus on the practical means of implementation, we will make progress in the negotiations. We must not waste time returning to decisions that have already been adopted. Let’s concentrate on the implementation of the Protocol,” she urged.

The executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ahmed Djoghlaf of Algeria, stressed the swift rate at which countries have adhered to the Cartagena Protocol. There have been 19 new ratifications in the last nine months alone, bringing the total to 130 nations.

“I hope that the decisions made in Curitiba will benefit the planet and future generations, even if we need to negotiate until midnight on Friday,” he said.

Greenpeace took advantage of the COP-MOP 3 opening to release a global report on incidents of GM contamination, prepared in conjunction with the UK-based organisation GeneWatch. The report reveals that there have been 113 incidents in 39 countries over the last ten years.

The number of countries affected is double the number of those that officially allow transgenic crops, which proves that contamination exists, stressed the head of the Greenpeace delegation, Benny Haerlin.

 
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