Debate over US policy has dominated a five-day UN conference on biotechnology safety, after an agreement among the United States, Canada and Mexico last October on labelling and shipping biotech goods. Washington is pursuing similar bilateral deals. 

Critics say such agreements weaken efforts to unify global trade rules for bio-engineered products by late 2005 under the UN Cartagena Protocol, which aims to protect Earth's diversity of life from threats posed by genetically modified organisms. 

Greenpeace spokeswoman Doreen Stabinsky predicted on Wednesday Washington might convince several South American countries to sign agreements that minimise requirements for exporters to conduct risks assessments and label biotech shipments. 

"This is a step backward that interferes with progress in enforcing the protocol," Stabinsky told reporters. "We hope that most countries will be shocked and will say no to such accords." 

Identification documents

During Wednesday's talks, countries failed to determine what
identification documents for biotech food shipments should look like and how they might be worded, said French delegate Eric Schoonejans. Further discussions were expected before the conference concludes on Friday. 

Many European and African nations want such goods to be accompanied by special papers providing detailed descriptions, instead of the current practice of commercial invoices with only basic information.

Charles Lambert, head of the US delegation at the biosafety talks, said Washington hoped its tri-lateral arrangement with Canada and Mexico, which embraces looser labelling, could serve as a model "in the practical real world of commercial trade." 

"We have approached other countries," Lambert, the US agriculture deputy undersecretary, told a news conference. "We would be willing to explore comparable agreements with other countries." 

Lambert declined to elaborate on such negotiations, but other US delegates have stressed countries have the right to reach agreements with governments - like the United States - that have not ratified the protocol. 

Disagreements

"This is a step backward that interferes with progress in enforcing the protocol. We hope that most countries will be shocked and will say no to such accords." 

Doreen Stabinsky,
Greenpeace spokeswoman

Disagreements about how stringently biotech trade should be regulated have divided government officials, scientists and environmentalists from more than 80 countries debating the issue for the first time since the Cartagena Protocol came into force last September. 

The United States and other leading producers of bio-engineered crops, including Argentina and Canada, want loose labelling requirements for products with gene-spliced ingredients. 

But biotech opponents say countries should be given as much information as possible about what they are importing, so they can choose to reject genetically modified products, which some activists fear could endanger human health and cause ecological damage.