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#655 - Resurrecting the Ugly American, 16-Jun-1999

"Attempts to forge the world's first treaty to regulate trade in
genetically modified products failed this morning when the United
States and five other big agricultural exporters rejected a proposal
that had the support of the rest of the roughly 130 nations taking
part." -- NEW YORK TIMES, February 24, 1999

Hundreds of diplomats, scientists, United Nations bureaucrats, and
public interest group types went to Cartagena, Colombia earlier this
year, hoping to conclude a treaty that would help them feel safe with
the products of genetic engineering. For four years they had been
arguing about environmental and human health dangers, details of risk
assessment, procedures for exchanging information and regulating trade,
the necessity of ensuring liability and compensation, and so forth.
Cartagena was scheduled to be their final negotiation.

Worry about genetic engineering had come in the wake of the 1992 Rio
Earth Summit and its creation, the Convention on Biological Diversity
(CBD). The CBD was based on the idea that all the nations and peoples
of the world could get together to safeguard what is left of the
world's biological resources. In November, 1995, CBD members decided to
develop a biosafety protocol, a binding treaty that would help prevent
the products of genetic engineering from harming the living organisms
of the planet.

By February, 1999, there were 175 members of the Convention on
Biological Diversity. The United States was not one of them.

The Bush Administration had refused to sign the CBD, partly on the
grounds that it "threatened" U.S. technology -- especially the U.S.
biotechnology industry -- and partly on the grounds that it would
impose unfair financial burdens on the U.S. The Clinton Administration
signed the CBD but the treaty was never ratified by the Senate.

Although not a member of the CBD, the U.S. sent a large delegation to
all CBD meetings, dominated the biosafety discussions, and generally
enjoyed most of the privileges and few, if any, of the responsibilities
of membership. By the time negotiations in Cartegena were nearing their
end, the U.S. was the main player.

For whatever reason -- the size of the U.S. biotechnology industry and
the hope of other nations not to be left behind, the difficulty of
enforcing a protocol without the tacit agreement of the largest biotech
player in the world, the extent of U.S. economic might, the amount of
testosterone in the State Department, the exaggerated power of
transnational corporations, the state of the world's economy -- the
rest of the world let the U.S. play the bully at Cartagena.

The U.S. was not alone in the role of bully. Five allies -- Canada,
Australia, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay--helped it hold sway over the
rest of the world. The six of them, like some Sidney Greenstreet gang
in a B movie, were known in Cartagena as the Miami Group (the city in
which they had met for the first time).

The protocol the Miami Group nixed the last night in Cartagena had
already been negotiated into near-impotence. The Precautionary
Principle [see REHW #586], cornerstone of the Rio Earth Summit, the
("better safe than sorry") beacon of what to do in the face of
insufficient "scientific" evidence, had been reduced to a mere mention
of its name in the preamble. Liability, the guide to assigning
responsibility if something goes wrong with the products of genetic
engineering, had been virtually elimi- nated. Socio-economic concerns,
consideration of whether an engineered product could destroy a
country's economy or ag- riculture or culture, had been exorcised. The
scope of the proposed protocol had been narrowed to such an extent that
no one in Cartagena was sure it actually applied to anything. The
document allowed trade between countries that signed the document and
those that did not, thereby eliminating any in- centive to sign. And
the word "label" (as in the need to label genetically engineered food)
was nowhere to be found.

Virtually everything the biosafety high-ground players had fought for
over the years had been lost by the end of the negotiations. Even so,
the Miami Group balked at allowing a biosafety protocol which might
apply to their genetically engineered commodities.

From the earliest days of the CBD, leadership on biosafety had come
from the developing world, not from countries with large biotechnology
industries to protect. While the U.S. asserted that the dangers of
genetic engineering were being exaggerated, that industry was doing
sufficient testing, that too stringent a protocol would not meet the
free-trade tests of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the negotiator
for the African group, Ethiopia's Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher,
reminded the U.S. that a biosafety protocol was meant to be an
environmental treaty, not a trade treaty. While John Neville,
representative of the Seychelles, reasoned that "safety not be
sacrificed to expediency," Rafe Pomerance, onetime policy analyst with
Friends of the Earth and the World Resources Institute, now Deputy
Assistant to the Secretary of State, ranted that he was "not going to
let anyone do anything that might harm a 68 billion dollar a year
industry in the United States."

The whole tone of the Cartagena meeting suggested that someone was
trying to pull strings. There was gossip that Andrew Young had been
sent to Africa before the meeting to whip the biosafety troublemakers
into line. There were whispers that President Clinton had made a last-
minute phone call to the head of the European Union, seeking to nudge
him into the Miami camp.

Some of the rumored pressures may have worked. The Europeans had
arrived in Cartagena saying that they would play the middle
ground "between the extremes" of the Miami Group and the African group.

Late the last night, the representative of the European Union, a group
of nations whose citizens were demanding labeling, moratoria, and bans,
quietly agreed to scuttle the Precautionary Principle. [See REHW #586.]

"Its all just the big boys jockeying for market position," explained
one diplomat.

Further adding to the Byzantine, humid atmosphere was the fact that so
many of the early meetings of importance in Cartagena were held in
rooms behind closed doors. At almost any hour you could find angry
delegates in the corridors outside those doors saying how it all
reminded them of "the old colonial game" or "the old days under the

Whatever was going on, and whoever was really in charge, the Miami
group held firm, insisting on a narrowly focused treaty with minimal
impact on industry.

Claiming the U.S. had made many compromises (but not detailing what
they were), Rafe Pomerance later would be quoted in the NEW YORK TIMES
saying, "There were two compromises we were not prepared to make. One
is to tie up trade in the world's food supply. The second is to allow
this regime, without a lot of deliberation, to undermine the W.T.O.
trading regime."

The Miami Group refused to allow the protocol to apply to their
genetically engineered corn and wheat. Arguing that commodities meant
for eating and processing do not enter the environment (but not
explaining where else it is possible for them to go), they kiboshed the

At about five in the morning, several hours after negotiations were to
have concluded, exhausted delegates agreed to the suspension of
negotiations. Talks were to be resumed no later than May 2000.

The NEW YORK TIMES reported that "bleary-eyed delegates from many
nations... expressed fury at the United States, accusing it of
intransigence and of putting the interest of its world-leading farming
and biotechnology industries above the environment." While the headline
in the MIAMI SUN SENTINEL reported just as bluntly: "Critics claim U.S.
greed is at root of refusal to sign biosafety treaty."

Taking it Personally

I was there in Cartagena, pretty bleary-eyed and furious myself. Like
many NGO (non-governmental organization) representatives, I had
followed the negotiations for years, convinced of the need for a
protocol. We had all consulted scientists and put out white papers and
published booklets and given workshops and ignored our families while
we organized consultations and rallies and whatever else we thought
might bring some biosafety. And at the end of it all, none of it seemed
to matter.

To be there that last night in Cartegena and to realize that the whole
world might get no biosafety because one country and its allies refused
to allow their genetically engineered commodities to be regulated, to
know that there were environmental and human health hazards and they
would not be met by precaution, to remember what the head of the U.S.
delegation, Melinda Kimble, had said to a group of NGOs the night
before -- "The only treaty less popular in the United States than the
Convention on Biological Diversity is the Treaty on the Rights of the
Child" -- and to recall the audible gasp that followed her remarks as
the meaning sunk in: the future was officially unpopular in the United
States -- it was too much.

Right after negotiations broke down in Cartegena, I ran into someone
from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the corridor; he was on
the U.S. delegation.

"How can you stand yourself?" I asked him.

A nearby delegate from Eastern Europe overheard me and looked
shocked. "Beth gets very emotional," the FDA guy explained.

"If rationality means risking ecological and human health on the planet
for the sake of the profits of one industry," I responded, "then I
certainly hope I'm emotional."

"You see what I mean?" said the FDA guy to the delegate.

"You're an evil man," I told the FDA guy.

The listening delegate, who happened to know me, attempted to
intervene, "Beth, this is not an evil man. I know him. He's a very nice
person. Really."

"No," I explained, "this is not a nice person. He may seem like a nice
person. He may be very pleasant but he carries an evil message. If I
allow myself to think of him as a nice man, if I do not insist that he
is personally responsible for the messages he utters, then one day I am
certain he will come and tell me that he was only following orders."

The delegate got my message. I'm not so sure about the FDA guy.

A few steps down the corridor, I ran into the reporter from the NEW

"Beth, what do you think about all this?"

"What do you think I think? The environment's always the loser, always.
There was no moral high ground here. There was no scientific high
ground. There was just cheap power politics."

I was still upset when I got on the plane for Bogota, about two hours
later. The plane was full of tired-looking delegates. I found my seat.

It was on the aisle. When the window seat occupant showed up, it turned
out to be Melinda Kimble, head of the U.S. delegation.

I started to laugh. By then, I'd already shouted at her a lot. Everyone
on the plane had probably heard me shout at her at least once. I had
nothing more to say.

I moved my legs aside so she could climb into her seat. I took out a
book and turned my back to her as far as I could without undoing the
seat belt. I didn't speak to her the whole trip. The politics of

When I got back home, I allowed myself one last useless gesture. I
wrote the President. In part, I told him:

"There was a lot of bitterness and anger at the end of the negotiations
in Cartagena and, while not all such feeling should be attributed to
the bullying style of diplomacy favored by our delegation, all the
anger and bitterness, I believe, will come to be directed at the people
and government of the United States.

"Because the United States has demonstrated an ability to push its way
into the heart of negotiations among parties to a treaty our country
has not yet ratified, it will be assumed, and perhaps correctly so,
that we are behind every untoward event, utterance, or outcome
associated with this treaty. Every use of 'rules' to subvert or prevent
the utterance of opposing views--and there was a great deal of
such 'rule' manipulation in Cartagena--will be designated an act of the
United States. Every personal slight or embarrassment experienced by
any of the delegates--and there were many such slights in Cartagena--
will be experienced as an affront committed by the United States. Every
utterance about the needs of our $68 billion a year industry will be
understood as an attack on the environment and citizens of other
countries. Continuous argument about protection of our industries will
make us hated. We will be seen as the fat, despised, and privileged
members of a society seeking only to make more money and become more

"One of the Third World delegates in Cartagena, a gentle scientist who
found himself among many others outside closed doors, waiting to hear
news from the few 'real negotiators' within, said to me, 'Beth, I
honestly thought I was doing something here. I honestly thought our
discussions in the contact groups were meaningful. I honestly thought I
was making a contribution worthy of what it cost my government to send
me here. But this, where all of us wait while they try to force a
protocol by using rules most of us hardly know--this is just brutal
power, just like the old colonial days.'

"Another delegate asked me on the last day, 'Beth, do they wish to push
us into the arms of Sadaam?...'"

-- by Beth Burrows[1]


[1] Beth Burrows is director and president of the Edmonds Institute,
20319 92nd Ave., Edmonds, WA 98020. Copyright (C) Beth Burrows.
Reprinted with permission from FOOD AND WATER JOURNAL (Spring 1999).
For subscription information contact Food & Water, Inc., 389 Rural
Route 215, Walden, VT 05873. Tel. (802) 563-3300.

Descriptor terms: biotech; treaties; convention on biological
diversity; cbd; biosafety protocol; beth burrows;

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