Treaty on Trade in Biotech Organisms to Become Law

MONTREAL, Canada, June 13, 2003, (ENS) - The small Pacific island nation of Palau today became the 50th country to ratify an international treaty that seeks to safeguard the Earth's biological diversity, triggering the treaty's entry into force. It is the first treaty that formally protects biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms.

The United Nations treaty, known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, or the Biosafety Protocol, will enter into force in 90 days, on September 11.

The protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a wider international treaty that protects the variety of life on Earth, including the genetic differences between species and within each species.

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In a U.S. Agriculture Department greenhouse, plant physiologist Autar Mattoo examines tomato plants genetically modified to enhance nutrient content and longevity of the fruit. (Photo courtesy USDA)
Governments that are Parties to the CBD adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on January 29, 2000 in Cartegena, Colombia.

The Biosafety Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks that may be posed by living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology. LMOs are also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The protocol establishes an advance informed agreement procedure for ensuring that countries accepting shipments of LMOs are provided with prior written notification and information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to the first import of LMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment.

Those shipments will have to be identified in accompanying documentation as LMOs with specification of the organisms' identity and characteristics and with a declaration that “the movement is in conformity with the requirements of the Protocol.”

“The Cartagena Protocol recognizes that biotechnology has an immense potential for improving human welfare, but that it could also pose potential risks to biodiversity and human health,” said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, under whose auspices the Biodiversity Convention was adopted in 1992.

"This new regime promises to make the international trade in GMOs more transparent while introducing important safety measures that will meet the needs of consumers, industry and the environment for many decades to come,” Toepfer said.

The Biosafety Protocol deals primarily with GMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment, such as seeds, trees or fish, and with genetically modified farm commodities, such as corn and grain used for food, animal feed or processing.

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Hamdallah Zedan heads the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. (Photo courtesy IISD)
“With the science of biotechnology advancing at such a rapid pace, it is vital that developing countries and countries with economies in transition have the human resources and institutions they need for promoting biosafety,” said Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Friends of the Earth International welcomed the start of the countdown to the entry into force of the Biosafety Protocol. It constitutes the first global environmental agreement of the new millenium, and the first international agreement which clearly says that genetically modified organisms "are different and therefore require a different treatment."

The Biosafety Protocol backs the approach of the European Union, which asserts that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) need different treatment from other organisms. The protocol stands in contradiction to policies held by some countries, such as the United States, which hold that GMOs are not different from the conventional plants and animals from which they are derived.

"The times of uncontrolled trade of GMOs are over," said Ricardo Navarro of El Salvador, chairman of Friends of the Earth International. "The Biosafety Protocol sets a new era for global regulation of GMOs. Exporters from all over the world should take adequate measures to prevent contamination of GM seed products," he said.

The international notification system under the Protocol does not replace national biosafety legislation, so Friends of the Earth warned that enacting stricter national legislation on biosafety is still needed.

The United States did not directly comment on the Biosafety Protocol, which it has not signed, but Thursday Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) told a House of Representatives Science subcommittee that the United States and the international community should continue to invest more in the development of new agricultural technologies - including biotechnology - to prevent millions more Africans from becoming malnourished and vulnerable to disease and infection.

"Africa presents the highest potential for realizing major benefits from biotechnology" because the continent has the world's lowest productivity of staple food crops, said Natsios.

Natisos pointed to Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and South Africa as the leading African countries that support biotechnology.

bananas

Genes for vaccine production can be inserted in food plants such as potatoes or bananas like these. This may provide a means of delivering immunization to remote populations. (Photo courtesy U.S. Botanic Garden)
Natsios refuted some of the criticisms of biotechnology that have been spread in the past few years, including that it is a tool for "forcing" Africans into accepting unwanted food.

"U.S. food aid makes the difference between life and death for millions of people in Africa," he said. U.S. food aid is made up of the same safe food we consume here [in the United States] and export to Canada, Japan and dozens of other countries that purchase it."

Upon entry into force, several provisions of the Biosafety Protocol will take effect immediately in addition to the advance informed agreement.

Shipments of LMO commodities intended for direct use for food, feed or processing will have to be identified in accompanying documentation as "may contain" LMOs and as “not intended for intentional introduction into the environment."

Countries will be required to use the Biosafety Clearing-House to fulfill a number of obligations. Specific information that must be made available through the clearing house includes - national biosafety laws, risk assessment summaries, and final decisions by importing countries with supporting reasons.

Any country Party to the protocol that approves for domestic use and marketing LMOs intended for direct use as food, feed or processing that may be exported will be required to communicate this decision and details about the LMO to the world community via the Biosafety Clearing-House.

The pilot phase of the clearing house, which is largely Internet based, has been developed by the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity and is available online at: http://bch.biodiv.org/Pilot/Home.aspx.