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BSWG-6
Sixth Meeting of the Open-ended Ad Hoc Working Group on Biosafety
Cartagena, Colombia
14 - 19 February 1999

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Interview with Melinda Kimble (transcript)


On 19 February, ENB writers Chad Carpenter, Stas Burgiel and Joanna Depledge met with H.E Melinda Kimble, Head of the U.S. Delegation to discuss the biosafety negotiations.

Listen to the interview in RealAudio

ENB: The US is not a Party to the CBD and the non-Parties provision that is being discussed is obviously very relevant to the US. Now I was wondering about … looking at that relationship …being a non-Party, as well as later on in the game, the issue of implementing, or corresponding to, the objectives of the protocol in trading with Parties.

Melinda Kimble: First and foremost, it's very important to understand that a high priority early in the Clinton Administration was to become a Party to the CBD. The Clinton Administration signed the treaty shortly after they came into office, and they submitted a package for advice and consent to the Senate indicating that the US was currently conforming to all the objectives of the CBD, and that we would continue to do so. When we failed to receive advice and consent, we nonetheless notified the secretariat of the CBD Convention, with our signature, our intent to observe the objectives of the Convention. With this Protocol, concurrently during that period, although the US took a position that was somewhat reticent to this Protocol in this initial period, we made another decision, that we accepted the fact that other states believed it to be important, that other states merited access to information about LMOs so they too could better assess the risks, that we think in general are quite low in terms of threats to the environment; and, wanting to be positive and constructive and reinforce our commitments to the objectives of the CBD, we chose to come in to work towards a good, workable, practicable biosafety protocol, and we have been doing that over the course of the past two years. So, I think that it's tough for us, but we also have to recognise that we are the largest producer of biotech products, although we are certainly followed very closely by the EU, and we have a very big stake in ensuring that trade in these products continues. But its also true that, if you look at, say, the commodities elements at stake here, people have been hybridising agricultural commodities for centuries. We now have the ability to do it faster, we now have the ability to do it differently, but world food security is dependent on crop improvements, crop adaptation, in plant breeders, investments in innovative crop development. So it is very important to understand this is part of a process.

ENB: Since we last spoke, there have been quite a few advances in the negotiations, specifically, the Chairman's text has come out with its corrigendum. We were wondering what your reactions to the text were? Do you see it as a possible basis for agreement?

MK: We said as soon as we saw it that we saw it as a constructive step forward in trying to bridge positions and identify where different groups were on a number of issues. It's not a perfect text, I think every regional group, every delegation would say that, but we do believe that it advanced the process, so we are happy to work on that basis.

ENB: One of the interesting things about this set of negotiations are the regional groupings - the EU, the Africa Group, the G-77. Lately, there's been talk of the Miami Group, and I wondered if it would be possible to just explain a little bit about the Group

MK: We began to have a conversation, more than two years ago, with a number of countries who are major agricultural exporters, major grain exporters, and as we talked about our interests vis a vis this protocol, we began to see that there are Parties to the Convention that share many of the same concerns and many of the same perspectives as the US, and we thought it would both speed the process and clarify positions if we formed a group and spoke through spokespersons on the floor, which we are doing in the Friends of the Chair, both to save time and to strengthen our voice. The US supported the initiative of all the members of this group, it is certainly not just a US initiative; the members of the Miami Group saw it in their interests to align themselves in these negotiations so that they could reinforce their positions.

ENB: The US has made its position pretty clear about some things it would, and would not, like to see in this agreement. Can you speculate on what might happen if the agreement does contain elements that you are not particularly happy with?

MK: Well, the US always has some very tough positions in any kind of environmental negotiations that we must, you know, deal with in terms of the overall text. I think it's too soon to say that we are going to get an outcome we can't work with, it's far too soon. I could envision a situation, however, when such an outcome would occur, and I would just say it would set back our efforts to continue our work to ratify the CBD and promote an effective protocol. I believe that, if this protocol is to achieve the mandate set for it, which is to protect the environment and biological diversity from the possible impacts of LMOs that come into that environment, you really do not need a broad scope protocol. You need a protocol that very clearly defines what LMOs pose risks to the environment, and that's what we are trying to do, we are trying to inform the process. And it's equally important to understand that some people get the plants involved in this discussion confused with the issue of exotic species. You can bring plants, which may not be genetically modified but are living organisms, into an ecosystem, and you can pose a very severe risk to that ecosystem. We all know the transplanted plants people have brought to places like Hawaii that now have probably only less than 30% indigenous flora, most of its flora is exotics. So you know, the exotics can take over. But that's not what this treaty is about. In fact, we've had a treaty that governs plant protection for many years - the International Plant Protection Convention. We have to understand as well that this treaty is not about human health. We have many, many, international agreements that govern food safety and human health and that's been going on for more than 50 years. So this agreement is going to add another layer of regulation, it should identify the risks, fill the gaps, recognise the new technology, but also recognise the relative risk.

ENB: You and I and Chad were in Kyoto in December 1997 and there are some obvious similarities and differences between the two processes …

MK: Differences… No penguins melting!

ENB: … I was interested in how you saw the two processes comparing.

MK: First of all, the Kyoto process was a much bigger stakes game, or perceived to be a bigger stakes game, although in practical terms, biotechnology is much more advanced than some of the work we're doing on climate change. Perhaps this is a more practical effort right at the moment. The process in Kyoto was driven by a different kind of chair, with a different kind of personality, more, I would say, flamboyant perhaps? And the process in Kyoto had much more visible friction or hostility between a number of delegations, particularly the EU delegation and the US delegation, which made it very frustrating and a difficult process for us and the EU. And I guess all of us said, well, that didn't do us much good to have that kind of atmosphere in Kyoto, and the atmosphere in Buenos Aires was much better as a consequence.

ENB: One other question would be regarding the issue of trade. A lot of delegates have brought some of the fundamental concerns back to trade, either relationship with the WTO or …. . I was just wondering - you mentioned the issue with other health standards - what was the US position in terms of the relationship of this protocol with other trade-related agreements?

MK: Here again, I believe there's a niche-filling role here. What this protocol is designed to do is protect the environment and potential threats to biological diversity in diverse environments. Given that, this protocol has a clear function, as part of a global regulatory framework, but the WTO and the world trade agreements have another framework, that's to support and sustain the free flow of trade. It's very important to understand that global prosperity, should you choose to start in any period of human history, has been critically dependent on the free flow of trade. Rule based trade has been what has driven world economic development, truly from ancient times. And we are at a point now when we can see the benefits of the rule based trade regimes that were set up and driven out of the GATT after World War II. The Clinton Administration, in fact, President Clinton just said in his State of the Union message, this has to continue. Trade liberalization is a priority for the US, ensuring that we do another round in the new WTO agreement is a priority for the US. Building a free trade agreement in the hemisphere is a priority for the US. And supporting the growth of trade liberalization in Asia is really critical to bring back the Asian economies. So rule based trade has got to be part of our agenda, and we have to balance the environmental concerns that evolve out of this kind of process. But they shouldn't stop the process, we all need free trade.

ENB: If they ultimately do produce an agreement that is acceptable to the US, and to everyone else, how much do you think that will impact the prospects for ratification domestically of the CBD?

MK: I really can't say. I believe that, if we get a good agreement here, of course the US will continue its current procedure, which is to support the objectives of the agreement, and work with the parties to the agreement to ensure its development and implementation. But I would say that, as I look at the situation right now, the prospects for treaties in the Senate are not good. This is just one among a number of treaties that we have on the table. It's also true that the domestic opposition to this treaty in the US is very firm. Even our indigenous people don't like this treaty. It's a treaty that has been fraught with controversy. It's going to be hard to move to ratification in the near term. But we are certainly looking for a point in the future when we can move it to ratification.


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