The delegates from over 130 countries who gathered in Montreal last weekend surprised just about everyone by reaching agreement on new rules to govern international trade in genetically modified foods. A similar effort broke down a year ago, and the failure to launch a new round of world trade talks in Seattle last year left many people convinced that any large-scale multilateral negotiations were doomed. The Montreal talks succeeded for two reasons. First, they could not afford to fail. Second, they took a new tack: Nongovernment groups were brought into the building and given a reason to see the talks succeed.

Genetically modified foods are big business. About 28 million hectares of genetically engineered plants were cultivated around the world last year. The United States is the biggest single producer of the foods: One-quarter of all corn and about 40 percent of all soybeans grown in that country are genetically engineered. Japan is thought to be the world’s biggest importer of genetically modified organisms because of the country’s reliance on farm imports. Over 30 percent of soybeans imported from the U.S. in 1998 were genetically modified.

Japanese consumers, like many of their counterparts in Europe and a growing number in the U.S., harbor concerns about such foods. Governments are being pressed to allay these worries, which made it urgent that an agreement be reached in Montreal. Failure to design an international protocol would have left a patchwork of national regulations likely to ensnarl international trade, create frictions and contribute to a general deterioration of international relations.

While the talks produced a treaty, it is more accurate to say they yielded a framework for future discussions. The protocol is complex, and that means there is room for interpretation, which is sure to yield a legal challenge or two. (The impact of the U.S. failure to sign the 1992 biosafety treaty that led to the Montreal protocol is certain to be a focal point.) Most importantly, however, it increases transparency and permits a country to ban food imports that it feels might be unsafe.

According to the treaty, exporters must label shipments that contain genetically altered commodities. The wording is loose, however: They are required only to say that the contents “may contain living modified organisms.” The imprecision is excused on the grounds that many shipments contain both modified and natural foods. If a country fears that the genetically altered varieties are unsafe, the treaty allows the government to ban the imports even in the absence of scientific proof to that effect. If the exporter feels there are no scientific grounds for the ban, it can take the dispute to the World Trade Organization.

It is a Solomonic compromise. It heads off what could be an ugly, high-profile dispute between the U.S. and Europe on the issue. It forces talks to continue, since the treaty does not go into effect until 50 countries ratify it, which should take two or three years. Then there will be another round of negotiations on more specific labeling requirements, which must be finished within two years.

Dialogue will be critical to the success of any regulatory scheme. The controversy over genetically modified organisms is not political theater. The publicity given to scientific reports of unintended effects of modified foods and government mismanagement of health-related crises — such as mad cow disease and AIDS — have alarmed the public and undermined its faith in the authorities’ ability to respond. Governments concerned about their own legitimacy have learned that over-reaction is the safest course. That is a sure recipe for political conflict.

Fortunately, common sense has prevailed. Part of the shift is attributable to a new awareness in the U.S., as well as among other exporters of genetically modified products, that transparency is in their interest. It is difficult to challenge the public’s right to know what it is eating, especially when the free flow of information is a pillar of the market economy.

The free flow of information also contributed to the success of the negotiations themselves. The decision to bring NGOs into the talks gave those groups a stake in the eventual outcome. Once the treaty deliberations reflected their input, they were no longer in a position to challenge them. It is tempting to call that a tactical maneuver, but it reflects the so-called new diplomacy. States can no longer claim to be the only significant participants in international relations. Negotiations that fail to grasp this shift in the diplomatic terrain are doomed to fail. That is the lesson of the Seattle WTO talks. Montreal’s success offers food for thought for all foreign ministries.

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