I bet he’d stand a “Chinaman’s chance”.

Then again, “Chinamen’s chances” aren’t what they used to be, considering Beijing’s recent decision to sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety – a treaty sponsored by the United Nations that has important implications for the future of global trade in agriculture. China now joins a list of more than a hundred other nations that officially have endorsed the Cartagena Protocol.

The United States isn’t one of them, and there’s a very good reason for this: The treaty is still being negotiated. Delegates were meeting as recently as last week in Montreal to discuss its direction, and the pact’s final form remains a mystery. Countries that choose to put their names on it are essentially signing blank checks and handing them over to the UN.

One of the main objectives of the Cartagena Protocol is to regulate the international trade of biotech foods. There’s certainly a lot of good to accomplish in this area, especially if we can find helpful and streamlined ways to increase transparency.

At the same time, we must remain extremely wary of those touting greater transparency. Take China, for example. We’re not exactly talking about an open society here. Consider this news story, filed by Reuters on May 19: “China, one of the world’s largest importers of [biotech] crops, said on Thursday that is has ratified a U.N. treaty the U.S. has spurned that aims for more transparency and control over trade in genetically modified foods. … China’s State Council, the cabinet, ratified the Protocol on April 27, an official at the State Environmental Protection Administration of China said.”

Got that? China’s government makes an important decision–but waits 22 days before announcing what it has done.

It seems to me that Beijing should worry about greater transparency at home before it starts talking about greater transparency abroad.

The Reuters story highlights another key point: China is a major importer of biotech food. In other words, it does not share the producer concerns of the United States, which is a major exporter of biotech crops. And there’s one thing we know for sure about the Cartagena Protocol: It will become a tool for importing countries to influence the behavior of exporting countries. It may even become an instrument of know-nothing protectionism.

For years, the European Union–a strong supporter of the Cartagena Protocol–has used scientifically unfounded concerns about the safety of biotech food to block American products from its markets. Europe would love to use the Cartagena Protocol as a bludgeon against American farmers who grow biotech-enhanced corn, cotton, and soybeans.

The Chinese could care less about any of this. They’re going to continue growing lots of their own biotech crops and importing lots more of it besides. With a population approaching 1.3 billion people, China is destined to be an importer of food for a very long time–it won’t have to think much about how the Cartagena Protocol affects its own farmers, because so little of what they grow will leave the country and fall under the treaty’s jurisdiction.

China certainly didn’t sign the agreement because it’s especially concerned with biological diversity, even though this was one of its given reasons. I remember taking a bus ride through farmland near Hong Kong several years ago. I was struck by the incredible lack of agricultural diversity–all I saw, mile after mile after mile, were banana plantations.

The real reason the Chinese signed the Cartagena Protocol is because they want to curry favor with the EU right now, for a variety of purposes that have nothing to do with agriculture. Perhaps you saw the recent headlines about China’s attempts to purchase weapons from Europe–and about how these talks have gone off track thanks to diplomatic pressure from the United States.

I’m willing to give transparency a chance–just not a “Chinaman’s chance”.

Reg Clause raises cattle, corn and soybeans on a fourth generation family farm in central Iowa. He is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology a national grassroots advocacy group based in Des Moines, IA formed and led by farmers in support of freer trade and advancements in biotechnology.