Sunday, February 4, 2007

Trading in Genetically Engineered Crops

Suman Sahai

The All India Rice Exporters Association has taken a position against GE rice in India, since this would hurt their export markets.

The fact that many countries in the world have chosen to reject genetically engineered (GE) crops and foods must make us alive to the fact that these preferences will reflect in the way that such crops are traded. Countries that are exporters of agricultural produce to nations that do not accept GE products will need to keep this factor in mind when investing in crop development aimed at exports. Despite this obvious reality, there is little visible effort in India to link the research agenda in agriculture biotechnology to India's trade advantages or vulnerabilities. This is not the case in other countries like Australia where an application to run a large-scale trial of genetically engineered canola was substantially diluted by the State Government where the trials were to be held. The Agriculture minister rejected the advice of his expert council which had recommended a 3000 ha trial because the Australian Wheat Board had raised strong objections that such a trial might risk its export markets if contamination occurred with GE canola. On its part, the Australian Wheat Board has successfully opposed genetically engineered wheat, responding to strong indications from the market and trading partners that genetically engineered wheat would not be acceptable.

At present the politics of trade in genetically engineered products is most prominently determined by the widely diverging positions of the United States and the European Union. This difference relates to their attitude to food production. European consumers, on an average, are more conscious of environmental concerns and food safety and tend to be suspicious of genetically engineered foods which they consider potentially unsafe and possibly damaging to the environment. In response to such attitudes, Europe's trading partners do not use genetic engineering in food production, so as not to risk losing markets in the EU. In amibia, where about 80% of the country's meat exports go to the EU, livestock farmers are extremely concerned that GE animal feed could enter the country unofficially and undermine the confidence of European consumers.

During the days of the food shortages in Africa, African governments refused US food aid because it consisted of genetically engineered foods. Zambia rejected the food aid entirely whereas Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique allowed its entry only after the grain had been processed to flour, so that grains could not be used as seeds for planting and contaminating agricultural produce that is exported to the EU. Despite its protestations, the Africans believed that the US used the situation of the African famine to introduce genetically engineered food in the form of food aid so as to force open the African market for its own genetically engineered produce.

International trade in genetically engineered products will be determined by the Cartagena protocol on Biosafety. The central regulatory element of the Biosafety protocol is the Advance Information Agreement (AIA).This applies to the first intentional transboundary movement of a genetically engineered organism that will be released into the environment. These could be seeds or micro organisms, essentially those organisms that can multiply in nature. The AIA provision does not apply to all categories of genetically engineered organisms that are to be traded. For instance, pharmaceuticals for human use do not have to be notified under the AIA. Products (organisms) that will be used directly as food or animal feed or for processing (GE-FFP)also need not be notified under the AIA. The GE-FFP exemptions have been strongly objected to by parties and countries that have a more cautious approach to genetically engineered products but the clause was pushed through at the behest of the US and the countries supporting it in the negotiations of the Biosafety Protocol.

At the level of international trade, the US and EU have just had a major trade spat in the WTO over the fact that the EU had refused to import GE soybean and corn that the US wanted to export to it, because there is strong consumer rejection in the EU of all genetically engineered products that could enter the food chain. The US and its partners, Canada and Argentina, hauled the EU to the WTO dispute settlement court and the verdict was in favour of the US. This does not mean that countries cannot resist forcible exports as in the EU-US case, but it does mean that countries need to exercise all the flexibility available in the Cartagena Protocol and frame firm and clear cut national policies regarding trade in GE products.

In India there is no policy on biotechnology, despite the setting up of two Task Forces on agriculture and pharma biotechnology, nor is there any policy on how trade in GE products, especially food, is to be handled. A long standing restriction on the import of genetically engineered foods was overturned by an ad hoc 2006 decision to allow the import of soybean oil sourced from GE soybean, even though it was not labelled. It is widely believed this was the result of US pressure following the controversial Indo-US deal in agriculture. In any case, this precedence will have implications for future imports of GE products, particularly from the US.

After the global contamination of rice by Bayer's GE rice LL 601, engineered to produce pig vaccine, was detected, US rice consignments had to be recalled from countries as far apart as Japan and Germany. The US rice market crashed, costing millions in losses to traders and ultimately farmers. Responding to this, the All India Rice Exporters Association has taken a position against GE rice in India, since this would hurt their export markets.

In the absence of any policy on the subject, the Commerce Ministry has asked the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC) not to approve GE crops in agri export zones. A few weeks later comes the announcement that the National Horticulture Board will invest substantially in genetic engineering and its priority areas will be the export oriented units! This is insane; different arms of government saying different things. To put an end to this confused mess, it is crucial that the country decides on a policy on genetically engineered crops and other products. This policy must be formulated after adequate public consultation and in a transparent manner; so that the country's domestic and trading interests are protected. Till this takes place, it is best to hold all GE crops in abeyance.

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