November 09, 2000

As Washington tries to sort out what a 'plant' is, world food security is iced in Switzerland. Industry, Europe, Japan, and the G77 (developing) countries look on in amazement.

A Not-so-Thanksgiving Story

The Biosafety protocol on GM crops was a big thing in January, but the meeting about to begin in Neuchatel addresses a "clear and present danger" to world food security. A brave little band of "biocrats" could decide the fate of the scientific exchange of crop genetics. Their political bosses don’t even know they've left town!

The Biosafety deal struck by governments in Montreal in January was intended to make the world safe from (or for?) transgenic crops. But what about the safety of those pedestrian seeds that are the basis for virtually all genetic crop improvement? The stuff that lets bio-engineers juggle genes and allows farmers to breed new diversity that can meet the stresses coming with global warming? Whereas the biosafety protocol tries to prevent the unwanted movement of GM seeds around the world, another treaty is being developed to facilitate the exchange of seeds for scientific research.

In a hotel just outside of Neuchatel high in the Swiss Alps, 40 governments will meet this Sunday (through Friday, the 17th) to swap seeds and devise a system of cross-border exchange intended to keep crop genes flowing for scientific purposes. While some of the controversial GM seeds are implicated, most of the negotiating will focus on several million varieties of "farmers' seeds" - traditional heirloom seeds of workhorse crops like rice and wheat. But the negotiators know something even their political masters seem unaware - or unconcerned - about: the seeds on the table in Neuchatel are the first link in the global food chain and are at the scientific centre of today's and tomorrow's food security.

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