2 September 2002

Plans to promote GM crops defeated

By Geoffrey Lean in Johannesburg

American plans to force genetically modified crops and food on to Third World countries were unexpectedly frustrated at the Earth Summit last night.

After an impassioned plea from Ethiopia, ministers rejected clauses in the summit's plan of action which would have given the World Trade Organisation (WTO) powers over international treaties on the environment.

One effect of this would have been to give the WTO the power to override the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, giving developing countries the right to refuse to take GM imports. The WTO regards free trade as its top priority.

The breakthrough – which rocked the American delegation, which has been blocking progress on most issues at the summit – took place as negotiators worked through the night to resolve the outstanding disagreements on the plan.

For most of the day the proposal had seemed fated to go through. Beside opening the door to GM, it would have placed at risk international treaties controlling the trade in toxic waste,
chemicals that destroy the ozone layer, and the pollution that causes global warming.

Originally, the only resistance to the proposals came from Norway and Switzerland but after the Ethiopian delegation made its intervention the rest of the Third World swung against it, followed by the European Union which had originally been pushed into adopting it by EC officials. The US was left isolated.

"I have never seen so many environmental ministers hugging each other as when the proposal went down,'' said one British negotiator early this morning.