New biosafety treaty on biotech grain trading appears to be confusing and difficult to enforce.

Certain grain shipments for export must now be labeled that they "may contain" genetically modified (GM) grain, according to the recently ratified global Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety treaty. More than 130 countries reached the agreement in Montreal.

As the ruling is currently interpreted, exporters planning to ship any "living modified organism" that will be introduced into the environment (such as seed) must obtain advance permission from the importing country. No permission is needed for the shipment of grain intended for eating or processing; however, shipments that "may contain" GM commodities must be labeled.

An importer may use the "precautionary principle" to bar the import of a GM crop without conclusive scientific evidence of harm. However, a "savings clause" in the agreement emphasizes that this new pact does not override rights and obligations under WTO rules that require decisions to be based on sound science.

ACGA response. Following the treaty announcement, the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) went on record stating that all crops need to be segregated between GM and non-GM crops. It predicts that this agreement will likely lead a far greater number of elevators to demand segregation by harvest, and it believes that this requirement will fall heavily on farmers.

ACGA CEO Gary Goldberg stated that many farmers, while desiring to have GM crops as a planting option, are seeing market conditions take these options away.

NCGA response. With a different interpretation of the Biosafety Protocol agreement, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) thinks it keeps trade channels open. "Nothing in this agreement should dissuade U.S. farmers from using biotechnology," says Susan Keith, senior director of public pol icy for the association. "We don't see this requiring segregation. That will be a market-driven decision. Contrary to what some others may be saying the biotech sky is not falling."

A key element in this protocol allows grain-importing governments to signal their willingness to accept GM commodities, communicating this decision to a newly formed, Internet-based Biosafety Clearing House.

The protocol will not go into effect until 50 more countries ratify it, which may take as long as two years. - Reuters and New York Times