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Biotech visa controversy ends, but suspicions remain

27-May-2005

Biotechnology expert Dr Tewolde Egziabher explains to Anthony Fletcher why he thinks Canada was so reluctant to issue him with a visa to attend the Cartagena biosafety negotiations in Montreal this week.

Egziabher, the director general of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, was finally granted a visa after intense international pressure forced Canadian authorities to capitulate, but the experience has left a bitter taste.

"Why do I think that the Canadian Government does not want me to participate in the FAO and UNEP multilateral fora? Because I have been a spokesperson insisting on responsible genetic engineering that safeguards human beings and biodiversity, calling, among other measures, for the labeling of products of genetic engineering," he told FoodNavigator-USA.com.

 

"It is good news that global indignation has induced the Canadian Government to give me a visa to participate in what is left of the biosafety negotiations in Montreal."

 

The Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, which was signed in 2000 and came into force in 2003, aims to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology. However Canada, one of the five biggest producers of GM crops, has never ratified the protocol.

 

About 800 representatives from around the world are expected to attend the Montreal negotiations, which run from 25 May to 3 June.

 

There is little international consensus on the issue. While the EU requires that all food be tracked and labeled if it contains 0.9 per cent or more traceable GM content, North America does not require the labeling of food derived from genetically engineered plants. Food producers do not need to indicate the method by which plants were produced.

 

Indeed, North American farmers have largely embraced new biotechnology, and consumers appear less fazed by health and safety concerns than in other parts of the world. In contrast, Dr. Egziabher is a strong supporter of bulk labeling of GM food and state liability.

 

Egziabher handed a letter written by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and his diplomatic passport to the Canadian Embassy on 5 May. "Not only did the Canadian immigration officials not give me a visa promptly, which they should have done as hosts of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, but they simply kept my passport disregarding my other travels."

 

Egziabher says that he hoped a quick and quiet diplomatic solution could be found, but that it took pressure from many quarters, especially from organizations in Canada, to enable him to receive his passport with a Canadian visa on Wednesday, 24 May.

 

The negotiations on liability and redress, which he had hoped to attend, finish today.

 

"In the exchange of information following my appeal for pressure to be applied on Canada, I came to realize that many others have also had their visas delayed or totally denied," he said. "They are all from developing countries."

 

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