Press Briefing by the U.S. Delegation, Sixth Meeting of the Working Group on Biosafety, Convention on Biological Diversity, Cartagena, Colombia, February 18, 1999

(Note: Interpretations occurred from English to Spanish and
Spanish to English.)

Melinda Kimble, Acting Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and
International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S.
Department of State: We are going to try to begin our press
briefing now. We're sorry to be a little late, but a lot of
things have been happening this morning and the plenary went to
after midnight last night.

My name is Melinda Kimble. I am now the head of the U.S.
delegation and I'd like my colleagues from the left to the right
to introduce themselves and their roles in the delegation,
starting with Eric.

Eric Flamm, Food and Drug Administration: I'm Eric Flamm. I'm
from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Mary McLeod, U.S. Department of State: I'm Mary McLeod, from the
U.S. Department of State.

Rafe Pomerance, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and
Alternate Head of U.S. Delegation: I'm Rafe Pomerance, alternate
head of our delegation.

Michael Schechtman, U.S. Department of Agriculture: I'm Michael
Schechtman from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kimble: I think it is important to understand that the United
States Government takes this negotiation very seriously. We
believe the objectives of this negotiation are very important and
we certainly support firmly the approach to protecting biological
diversity. We have worked on this Protocol over a two-year period
in a very committed and constructive manner, and I think it is
important to understand that we believe there are two issues here
that can be addressed creatively through this negotiation. First
and foremost, we can protect biologic diversity. We can ensure
the continuation and use of new technology, which people call
biotechnology in this negotiation. And we can also assure that
international trade continues.

The United States is committed to ensuring that all international
agreements complement, rather than cause problems with each
other. And so we think that's possible certainly to do in this
negotiation, and we're committed to solving all the problems that
people have pointed out could arise from various proposals on the
table. I would like to turn the mike over to my colleague, Mr.
Pomerance, because he has been running the delegation for most of
the last week and most of the beginning of this week, and he will
outline some of our key proposals.

Pomerance: Thank you, Melinda. As Melinda Kimble mentioned, we
have two over-riding goals here. One is to protect biodiversity;
the other is to ensure that we do not unduly restrict trade in
extremely important products. In order to do that, there are two
or three central debates in this negotiation that I'd like to
point out to you. The first provision that I'm sure you know by
now is known as the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA). This is the
key provision for protecting biodiversity. It is here that we
believe that the central risk to biodiversity can be addressed by
ensuring that any genetically modified organisms contained in
products that are deliberately introduced into the environment
are subject to advanced informed agreement. We have placed our
emphasis to ensure that biodiversity is protected on a provision
that would require exporters to gain the permission of importers
for products that were being introduced into the environment,
like seeds or products for field testing, or fish--categories
like that. Some have argued that the number of products covered
by this Advance Informed Agreement should be much broader. In our
view, if countries -- as they may, as sovereign nations -- wish
to place increased import notification requirements,
restrictions, or permits on other genetically modified organisms,
they can do that as a domestic, unilateral measure.

The second provision that we regard as extremely important,
perhaps the most important provision, aside from the AIA, is a
global regime of information sharing. We believe that many of the
issues that have been raised concerning these products can be
answered if timely information is available to governments, non-
governmental organizations or consumers.

Let me make one final point. This is an extremely important
negotiation because we are dealing with the manner in which the
world's food supply, or much of the world's food supply, will be
traded. Our delegation is completely committed to ensuring that
the trade in food products is moved efficiently, smoothly, and at
low cost. And we are working in the negotiations to ensure that
those objectives are accomplished.

Kimble: We would now like to take your questions. If you would
come to the microphone in the center and identify yourself and
your organization.

Adam Thompson, "Financial Times": I'd just like some
clarification as to your point of view on derivatives, or
"products derived from" GMOs (genetically modified organisms). I
wasn't quite sure about that. I mean with regard to whether they
should be included in the Protocol.

Pomerance: Our position in the negotiations--let me back up a
second--the mandate for these negotiations was established two or
three years ago in Jakarta in Indonesia. And at that time we had
a long negotiation about what we should be focused on here. And
products thereof, as we call them, were not in the mandate. They
were excluded. And therefore we don't really think that's a
subject that's appropriate for this negotiation. And the reason
why the mandate is important is that this negotiation could be
about ten or 12 big issues. What it's really supposed to be about
is the protection of biodiversity. So, in addition, products
derived from GMOs are, to say the least, (of) extremely low risk
to biodiversity. It is possible that as a result of providing
information on living modified organisms, that when risk
assessments are done and information is provided, much
information is provided about potential products. So there is a
way for governments and consumers to get information about that
as the result of an information sharing mechanism. But we
certainly are adamantly opposed to any requirement that would
subject products thereof to Advance Informed Agreement. In fact,
I don't think there's much support left in these negotiations for
that. There was some coming in, but it's, in general, pretty much
diminished almost to zero.

Carlos Alberto Sourdis, "El Tiempo" (Colombia): Is the United
States delegation willing to step out of the negotiations if
harsh restrictions are placed on international trade in these
items? And as a follow-up, what would be the conditions that
might cause the United States delegation to leave these

Kimble: Let me say right at the outset that I do not believe that
there is a condition on which the United States would step out of
these negotiations at this stage. These negotiations are
proceeding in a very positive direction. More and more countries
are narrowing the scope of their thinking, focusing on the need
to protect biological diversity...that an agreement can be
achieved that will protect the environment, and ensure the
continued free flow of trade.

Antonio Martinez, EFE: You sound very optimistic, but we all know
that there are many parts of the Protocol that are still in
brackets, and that there's much of the text that's on the
sidelines that's not in full agreement among all. Do you really
believe that in the next 36 hours that you have left you will be
able to achieve what you have not in four years?

Kimble: Well, that's certainly a challenge for all of us. But let
me say that first of all, United Nations negotiations have been
known to run overtime -- 12 hours, one day. So we still have some
time on the weekend, I expect. And I would point to the fact that
the Chairman of this conference, Mr. Veit Koester, has taken many
of the key issues into his own hands, and is working with a
number of delegations to develop compromise solutions for key
areas of the text. So we will see what happens. The United States
in this negotiation is to support an approach that leads to an
outcome that will be a good agreement supporting the objectives
of the Convention on Biological Diversity and supporting the
interests of everyone in the world to have effective, efficient,
and safe international trade.

Ivonne Malaver, "El Tiempo": If you have such interest in
protecting biodiversity, why is it that the United States has not
signed the Convention?

Kimble: Actually the United States has signed the Biological
Diversity Convention. We have not been able to ratify the
Biological Diversity Convention. In fact, the United States has
been unable to ratify a number of international conventions, in
part because of domestic considerations. But when we signed the
Biological Diversity Convention, in our report to the Senate, we
made clear our support for the objectives of the Convention. And
we notified all the parties of our intent domestically to
preserve and protect biological diversity as required under the
Convention in the United States. And we continue to not only do
that, but to provide technical assistance for the protection of
biological diversity throughout the world.

Malaver: I would like to know what are those domestic
considerations that the United States has that don't allow it to

Kimble: A number of United States non-governmental organizations
and a number of individual communities in the United States are
concerned about the provisions of the Biological Diversity
Convention, and how they might affect private property rights.
And these organizations have asked the Senate not to ratify the
Convention, and the Senate has not taken up the Convention as a

Pomerance: Let me just add one element to Assistant Secretary
Kimble's answer. When we sent the papers forward to the Senate
for what's called "advice and consent" -- when they by two-thirds
majority have to approve a treaty -- our analysis of the treaty
was the United States was already in compliance with all
provisions. We needed no new legislation...that through the many
laws and practices and institutions in the United States, we were
already in compliance with all the provisions.

Ricardo Moldonado, Associated Press: I would like to know if the
United States is willing to accept the provision on
responsibility offered by Greenpeace. That is that if a
biologically modified organism "goes bad," and gets loose, if the
United States is willing to accept responsibility?

Pomerance: I'm not a liability lawyer. I have someone to my left
who is a little closer to that than I am. But normally issues of
liability in products are handled by domestic liability regimes.
International regimes that have been advocated by some are
extremely rare and very difficult to negotiate. So typically a
problem like that would fall under a domestic process.

Moldonado: My second question then is I would like to have some
dollar figures. How much is the amount of U.S. sales in
biologically modified organisms? How much does this mean to the
United States?

Kimble: Let me turn this over for the moment to our
representative from the Department of Agriculture and then we'll
also have our rep from the Food and Drug Administration perhaps

Schechtman: I'm not sure that I can give you specific dollar
numbers, but I can give you some idea in terms of the volume of
crops that are being developed in the United States that are
genetically modified, that are in commercial use at this time. My
recollection is that as of this time, approximately a quarter of
all the corn, maize, that's grown in the United States is
genetically modified. Something on the order of, I believe, 40
percent of the soybeans that are grown in the United States at
this time are genetically modified, a similar number for the
cotton, and a few percent of the potatoes that are grown in the
United States are genetically modified. I don't know specifically
how to translate those acreages into dollars.

Kimble: We'll try to get you some more specific data. It is true
that the United States exports, in total export volume, around 60
billion dollars in agricultural products. Obviously, you can kind
of make a rough estimate from the percentages we gave you from
our corn and soybean estimates.

Bette Hileman, "Chemical and Engineering News": I have two
questions. Do you think that risk to human health, or to socio-
economic systems, should be considered under the risk assessments
done under the Protocol? And the second question is -- if a
country decides to have more restrictive barriers to trade than
are included under the Protocol, would this be fought under the
World Trade Organization and probably overruled?

Kimble: Let me just make one general point, and I'll ask several
members of my delegation if they'd like to add further comments.
We have been working on protecting human health internationally
for more than 50 years through the United Nations Food and
Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization. We
have a body called the Codex Alimentarius which sets food safety
standards for international trade. This has been a successful
regime for a long time, and it continues to be successful. This
Protocol is about protecting the environment from risks that
might be related to releasing living modified organisms into the
environment and how those organisms...might affect biological
diversity. We believe that we should use all the international
instruments available to address specifically the concerns about
human health, rather than just this Protocol. And I'll ask Rafe
Pomerance to comment further.

Pomerance: Just briefly, this Protocol, this Convention, has the
goal of protecting biodiversity. It's not an institution designed
to deal with public health or human health issues. As Assistant
Secretary Kimble has mentioned, there are a range of
international institutions and agreements designed to do that
already. Many countries have urged that we address issues like
health and socio-economic concerns that are really outside the
mandate of the negotiations. And that's our position, that
they're outside the mandate and not appropriate to be addressed
in there. We are willing to work with other negotiators to try to
find solutions, but ones that carefully protect the mandate that
we have here, and that limit the amount, limit the focus, because
the Convention on Biodiversity is a very fragile instrument. It
doesn't have a great deal of resources associated with it. And at
Rio what we were trying to do was focus the world on the
protection of biological diversity, and that's the agenda we want
to stick to here. If we diversify the agenda, we will lose the
focus on biological diversity and biological diversity is
disappearing at a rapid rate throughout the planet. So that's the
first point. Second point on the trade issue -- we believe this
agreement should, ought to be and can be consistent and
complementary to other international agreements, including the
World Trade Organization. And we would hope and expect that
conflicts could be resolved within this agreement. I'd leave it
at that.

Marta Morales, "El Espectador" (Colombia): One reason that
supports the use of genetically modified organisms is food
security, and until now, 70 percent of these genetically modified
products are resistant to herbicides...Don't you think then, that
this would be another supporting reason--the protection of food
supply?...Is your motivation one of economics or public health?

Schechtman: I think our answer to that is that these are all
parts of the general motivation. It's quite clear that as the
world's population increases, there are going to be greater and
greater demands to be producing food in the world, and the amount
of arable land, for example, is not increasing, in fact, if
anything it's diminishing. So that all of the world's farmers
will need to farm not only more safely, but smarter. In addition,
if that doesn't happen, it's very clear that many more marginal
lands, and lands that have a large number of species that we
particularly care about under this process, may become farm land,
and that's obviously not a desirable end -- so that we need to be
able to use all of the technologies that we can safely use to be
able to meet the needs of the world's growing population. But
with all that, I would just add that the products that are
developed of course go through a careful examination process by
regulatory officials -- as well as by the traditional process of
crop breeders and the traditional breeding processes -- to ensure
that they behave in the way that farmers depend on them to

Max Henriquez, Association of National (Colombian) Environmental
Reporters: The question is going to the head of delegation. We
get the idea from listening to the U.S. position in international
fora that there are two sides to its position in almost every
case, a private and a public. The Convention on Biological
Diversity supports that idea. That the U.S. position is not that
of private industry. That also there are one set of laws for the
United States and its domestic concerns, and another set of laws
for the world. This position is often criticized and is expressed
as a double standard and has application in things that are
enforced now in Colombia, and we would like you to respond to
that view.

Kimble: I think it is a misperception to believe that the United
States is promoting a double standard. We believe that our
regulatory regimes set standards, particularly for human health
and safety, that are standards that can be adopted all over the
world, should countries choose to adopt them. We also believe
that the best way to regulate is to set strong national
standards. We do not believe that is inconsistent with agreeing,
at an international level, to work toward protecting biological
diversity, protecting human health, or advancing the goals of
free trade. We believe all these can be accommodated, both
through domestic law, and through appropriate international
regimes. Thank you very much.


Return to Vinnie's Home Page

Return to Global Environment Page