NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Trade Barriers To Biotechnology

February 15, 1999

The so-called Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 has spawned yet another challenge to technological progress, critics contend. The latest result of the conference is the Biosafety Protocol, which is being hammered out in Cartagena, Columbia, this week by delegates from about 170 nations.

U.S. government officials and private companies are worried that the agreement which might emerge could greatly restrict exports of food and other products made using genetic engineering.

  • The protocol would require that exports of genetically modified organisms be approved by the importing country.
  • In genetically altering an organism, genes from one species may be spliced into another to confer certain desirable traits -- such as resistance to blights or pests.
  • While environmentalists contend enhanced organisms could take over and displace other species, industry experts fear enormous trade disruption that could impede tens of billions of dollars worth of annual exports of seeds, grains and perhaps even products like breakfast cereal made from genetically engineered corn, or blue jeans made from genetically modified cotton.
  • While Washington reportedly thinks it is appropriate to have a treaty covering genetically modified seeds, the government and some U.S. companies worry the final treaty could go much farther than that.

The U.S. exports more than $50 billion of agricultural products each year -- with an increasing share of major crops being genetically engineered. Such crops accounted for 25 percent of corn acreage planted in the U.S. last year, 35 percent of soybean acreage and 45 percent of cotton.

Ethiopia leads a group of African nations pushing for the most stringent rules. The U.S. is taking part in the negotiations but cannot vote, since it never ratified the 1992 biodiversity treaty. European countries are said to be pursuing a middle ground in the debate.

Source: Andrew Pollack, "Setting Rules for Biotechnology Trade," New York Times, February 15, 1999.


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