Biosafety breakdown

A game Africa can't play: Name that GMO.


Andrew Leonard
March 23, 2006 5:19AM (UTC)

Last week, the signatories to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety met in Curitiba, Brazil, met to hammer out an agreement on the mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. Two related news reports from SciDev.net caught my eye. The first noted that attendance at the conference by representatives of African nations was likely to be poor because a number of countries couldn't afford to send delegates. Developed nations, which under a clause of the Protocol are obligated to come up with funding to help everybody make it to the table, hadn't lived up to their promise.

The second news article noted another African biosafety woe. African nations need financial and technical help to implement the Protocol, which is designed to allow countries to protect local biodiversity and indigenous crops from transgenic contamination. But only one African nation (South Africa) even has a testing lab capable of determining whether a given food product has genetically modified content.

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That's a pretty pickle: can't afford to be part of the discussion that determines the rules; can't afford to implement the rules that are ultimately determined. To make matters worse, Africa is the primary region where the question of labeling has the most life-and-death significance. In Europe, consumers don't run the chance of starving if they reject G.M. food. But in Africa, that possibility is quite real. In 2002, the "debate" about G.M. foods reached critical mass when Zambia and several other African nations rejected imports of G.M. corn from the United States, despite being in the middle of massive famine.

Let's set aside for now the issue of whether there is scientific merit to the refusal to let G.M. products into a country. Other nations gave Zambia cash to buy corn on the open market. But the U.S. said, in effect: You'll take G.M. corn or get no corn at all, a stance that environmentalists claimed was just a blatant attempt to help U.S. farmers get rid of surplus G.M. crops for which they could find no market.

But what, in the end, was achieved in Curitiba? Well, according to some reports, a "successful" agreement was delivered after much arm-twisting that will require the mandatory labeling of GMOs. No longer will exporters be allowed to use the weasel words "may contain GMOs." Henceforth, they will have to say "contains GMOs."

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Well, not actually henceforth. Countries have six years before they have to comply. Oh yeah, and nations that have not signed the Protocol, like, surprise, surprise, the United States, don't have to do anything.

So maybe it's no big deal that some African nations couldn't afford to go to the conference and most can't afford to implement the rules. With loopholes that big, a whole continent can drive through.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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