Environmental lobby groups have claimed a victory over the US after more than 100 countries agreed to international rules regarding the export of genetically modified crops and food.

Countries that have signed the UN’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which entered into force last September, have agreed this week on a “rigorous system” for the handling, transporting, packaging and labelling of GM exports, reported Agence France Presse.

Supporters of the protocol hope the latest agreement will be a major step towards implementing and enforcing global trade rules on GM exports by September 2005.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth said the agreement “foiled attempts by the USA and other GM exporting countries to weaken this newborn international agreement on GMOs”.

“We are happy with the outcome,” Greenpeace delegation chief Doreen Stabinsky told AFP. “The US, Argentina and Canada were furious with the result.”

The US, the largest producer of GM crops, said it was disappointed with the agreement.

“We understand the concerns that countries have to protect their biodiversity, but we believe you can’t just erect walls and have regulatory procedures that are not based on science,” biotech trade policy spokeswoman Deborah Malac was quoted by AFP as saying.

“Our biggest disappointment is that we feel they are moving down a path away from practical steps. They are moving very, very quickly in a direction without being sure parties can implement their obligations.”

The Cartagena Protocol has been signed by 86 individual countries, as well as the European Union. Neither the US, Canada nor Argentina have signed the protocol.

“Now that a system for identifying and labelling GMO exports has become operational, countries can enjoy the benefits of biotechnology with greater confidence while avoiding the potential risks,” Hamdallah Zedan, the protocol’s executive secretary, was quoted by AFP as saying.

“This rigorous system for handling, transporting, packaging and identifying GMOs is in the best interests of everyone – developed and developing countries, consumers and industry, and all those who care deeply about our natural environment,” he said.