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Biotech firms gird for fight in China


by Danielle Knight

IPS, 12  February 2002

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,  13   February 2002


 The biotechnology industry has threatened possible legal action against China if the world's most populous country does not back away from barring genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The American Soybean Association (ASA) has said it is confident China - the world's largest importer of soybeans - eventually will give in to pressure from US officials, who were in Beijing last week seeking clarity on trade restrictions proposed by the government there. Nevertheless, at least two firms have hired a lawyer to plot strategy in the event China implements its restrictions starting March 20, as it has proposed. William DiSalvatore, a partner in the New York law firm Hale and Dorr, told the Reuters news agency his clients - a US and a European biotechnology firm that have yet to be identified by name - "will consider some form of action if the rules are implemented". He did not elaborate.

Various biotechnology companies contacted by IPS - including industry leaders Monsanto, Novartis, and Aventis - declined or were unavailable to comment on DiSalvatore's remarks.

In January, Beijing announced the long-awaited details of its controversial rules on genetically modified food, which appear to be stricter than those adopted by the United States. US industry and government officials have complained that China's new regulations on imports of biotech foods were so restrictive that they would threatened US$1 billion in annual sales of US soybeans, about 70 percent of which are genetically modified. The regulations require that all GMO imports be labeled. Exporters must also apply for safety certificates - which could take up to 270 days to obtain - stating that the goods are harmless to humans, animals and the environment.

Tang Yangli, a senior expert at the Ministry of Agriculture Information Center, said the new rules were likely to delay any imports of GMOs. "It will cost traders more and take them longer to get GMO products labeled, obtain safety certificates, approval documents and pay quarantine fees," she said.

US officials have argued the proposed rules were really an effort by China to protect its domestic soybean market. Chinese agricultural officials have stated their concern that soybean imports exceeded domestic production for the first time last year, a trend that could accelerate with China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). China's imports of soybeans have skyrocketed in recent years, from less than 2.5 million tonnes per year in the early 1990s to more than 10 million tonnes in 2000, half of which came from the United States, according to industry and official statistics. China purchased $1.28 billion worth of soybeans last year - triple the amount it bought in 1999 - and is the largest buyer of US soybeans and soy products, according to the ASA.

During last week's talks in Beijing, Chinese Agriculture Minister Du Qinglin said his country still planned to implement its GMO rules on March 20. The US soybean industry said, however, it was confident the United States would eventually compel China to loosen the restrictions. "Ultimately, I think pressure from our government and pressure from their own [soybean companies] will force them to open their import door again," said Phil Laney, China director for the ASA. It was unclear whether GMOs would be on the agenda when President George W Bush visits China on February 21.

Critics of biotechnology have long accused the United States and other agricultural exporting nations, including Argentina, of bullying less powerful nations that have prohibited or proposed to prohibit the import of GMOs. Bolivia, Croatia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, which adopted or proposed to adopt strict rules on biologically engineered products, have been facing heightened pressure for the past two years to drop any bans or proposed restrictions on the import of products derived from modified crops, according to environmentalists in those countries. The United States and Argentina have argued that rules restricting imports of GMOs violate trade law under the WTO. US officials said the existing regulatory framework and monitoring policies were adequate to ensure that GMO products were safe for human and animal consumption.

Early in 2001, the government of Sri Lanka drafted a ban on GMOs in their country that was supposed to enter into force in September. The ban has been deferred indefinitely, however, because of pressure from the United States, said Larry Bohlen, director of health and environment programs at Friends of the Earth US. "The US government's promotion of genetically modified organisms is so aggressive that it is working to overturn other countries' laws," he said.

Copyright  Inter Press Service.  2002. Reprinted for fair use only

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