OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward


vegetable stand

Safety Denied


wonders whether the North is serious about negotiating a Biosafety Protocol

The world expected a sufficiently robust Biosafety Protocol to come out of negotiations that took place in Cartagena, Columbia in February. It did not happen. I was there, a Southern negotiator. We will try to negotiate once more, but I am not optimistic.My pessimism is based on weighing the considered intransigence of the Miami Group (United States of America, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay) and also - despite propaganda to the contrary - largely of the European Group. I have examined the controversial provisions included, and excluded from, the Chairman's draft Protocol, which was the basis for the last days of negotiations in Cartagena. In this, things went the way the South - represented by the Like-Minded Group - wanted only once for every 2.8 and 4.6 times they went the way the Miami and European Groups, respectively, wished.

When I counted the number of times the positions of the Like-Minded and Miami, Like-Minded and European, and European and Miami Groups coincided, the numbers were nil, 18 and 57, respectively. In spite of the propaganda, therefore, the European Group sided with the Miami Group more than three times as often as with the Like-Minded Group. The negotiations were therefore, as ever, between North and South.

Also as ever, the motives were money and power, with the North Americans wanting to continue their global control, the Europeans trying to reassert an equal right to the global foray, and the Southerners trying to avoid continuing to be the prey.

These desires were expressed in many ways. I will give only some examples.

Socio-economic considerations. The Miami and European Groups would not allow the use of socio-economic variables even in risk assessment. The Chairman's draft Article 24 contains the statement: 'Parties, in reaching decision on import, may take into account... socio-economic considerations'. This is useless because it is qualified by the phrase 'consistent with their international obligations', which means, in effect, that they have to give priority to facilitating free trade. Thus Southern nations are expected to accept whatever disruption genetically modified organisms (GMOs) might cause their societies and economies.

Liability and redress. The South needs an international regime on strict liability. As the Convention on Biological Diversity states, genetic engineering is new and we do not know what damage it might cause. We are told that even the insurance services in the industrialized countries do not cover anything to do with the biotechnology industry. So are we, outsiders, to trust it completely? No wonder that the South proposed a fully developed international regime on strict liability. But the European and Miami Groups refused even to consider it. As a compromise, the South insisted on meaningful moves in the Protocol towards a strict liability regime over the next four years.

Subordinating safety to trade. There also were fights directly over trade, with both the Miami and European Groups staking their claims to continue to control the South's resources and trying to outsmart each other in the process. They both wanted the domestic laws of Southern countries to be subjugated to other - meaning trade - agreements, when aiming at a higher level of environmental protection. Similarly, they wanted facilitating trade to override safety considerations, and wanted to stop domestically produced GMOs having preferential treatment. How different is this from stating that the South will not be allowed to develop the capacity to produce GMOs?

The European Group seems to have felt that the Miami Group had an advantage over them in genetic engineering. The latter agreed, and promoted an article to subjugate the Protocol to the World Trade Organization agreements, so that they might flood Europe with GMOs and kill its genetic engineering. The European Group thus wanted the article removed and the Like-Minded Group supported them.

Precautionary approach. The Miami Group totally opposed the precautionary approach. The European countries made bold statements about it to appease their public, but were quick to drop the article that would have put it into effect, in the face of the Miami Group's opposition, retaining it only in the Preamble. In a much less noticeable way, they also agreed to eliminate the precautionary approach from other operative articles.

Human health. The Miami Group also wanted all health considerations deleted from the Protocol. The European Group, perhaps feeling that its public would scrutinize health issues thoroughly, wanted them included in most cases. But even they stopped short of subjecting GMOs for pharmaceutical purposes to the Advance Informed Agreement procedure (see below). This was to satisfy their chemical companies, showing that, when it comes to the crunch, the corporation wins!

The Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) procedure. The Convention on Biological Diversity envisages this as the heart of biosafety. But it came under the most sustained attack from the Miami and European Groups.

The South started out with the aim of ensuring that every transboundary movement of a GMO or its product would be governed by this procedure. But the Northern Groups chipped away at the AIA procedure. They removed:

- Products of GMOs, though they contain transmissible transgenes.

- Plasmids, though they carry the transgenes and invade all sorts of cells.

- Organisms obtained through cell fusion below the taxonomic family level, though they contain novel gene combinations.

They wanted to reduce the application of the AIA procedure so that it could only be applied once. Worse still, they wanted to abridge the steps of the AIA procedure, even to the extent of sending out the notification at the same time as the merchandise. All this was to be done without increasing risk. What tricks would make this possible?

Most damaging of all were the many exemptions from the Protocol and/or from the AIA procedure, including GMOs in transit, for contained use, pharmaceuticals and commodities. As if these were not significant enough, the Conference of the Parties was expected to exempt more GMOs and any Party could exempt any or all GMOs as it wished.

With all these loopholes, there would virtually be no GMO - not even one banned in its country of origin - that could not be transported or used under the Protocol, yet in avoidance of its provisions. The only exceptions would be those GMOs which the Conference of the Parties required, under Article 8.6, always to be transported through the strict application of the AIA procedure. And if the Miami Group had had their way, this article would have been deleted.

Was the North serious about regulating genetic engineering at Cartagena, or did it merely wish to fool its own public and, as usual, the South?

Dr. Tewolde Berhan G. Egziabher is General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority, Ethiopia.

barren land

Elephants, mouse-deer and genetic modification


blames the United States of America, its allies, and the European Union, for the breakdown of negotiations on a Biosafety Protocol

'When two elephants fight' goes the old Eastern saying, 'the mouse-deer gets crushed'. So it has been for the interests of the South - and the environment - over biosafety as the United States of America and Europe are preoccupied with their trade rivalry.'

Developing countries converged on the historic Colombian city of Cartagena in February for the final round of negotiations for a Biosafety Protocol, confident that it would be finally concluded and adopted. Two and a half years of painstaking negotiations by 132 countries had produced a working draft of some 42 Articles to regulate the international movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Two weeks later it lay in shambles. Why?

First, the United States of America-led Miami Group - a six-member coalition of the main GMO producers also including Canada, Australia and the three Southern countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay - blocked any provision which they perceived could hamper, even obliquely, the free and unimpeded trade of GMOs and their derivative products.

Secondly, the European Union (EU) readily gave up key provisions, crucial for protecting the environment and human health, in return for the deletion of a provision which would have subordinated the Protocol to the World Trade Organization (WTO).

The Miami Group's opposition was expected. The United States of America, and its biotechnology industry, had opposed the Protocol from the start. But the EU's posture was rather surprising, especially to the South. It started the Cartagena round on high moral grounds, declaring itself ready to side with developing countries to ensure an effective Protocol which would protect their diversity-rich environments and peoples. But it did nothing of the sort. Instead - as became clear in the final hours - it abandoned the South.

In the end, trade considerations and the looming trade war between the United States of America and the EU dominated the negotiations and subsumed any safety concerns. This emerged clearly, for example, in the negotiations on the scope of the Protocol. Both the Miami Group and the EU proposed that GMOs destined for contained use and those that are pharmaceuticals for humans should be excluded, despite the fact that the Jakarta Mandate already agreed for the Protocol required it to cover the transboundary movement of any GMO which may have an adverse effect on biodiversity.

Manoeuvres on the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) procedure - which would oblige countries to ensure that its exporters give prior notification to importing countries to enable them to make a risk assessment of the GMO, before the import was approved - provided an even more important example. The Miami Group wanted the procedure to apply only to GMOs intended for direct release into the environment. The South's position has always been that it should cover all GMOs, and their products.


At first the EU insisted that the first transboundary movement of all GMOs destined to be placed on the market in their viable form should be subject to the procedure. This would have included such commodities as soya bean, grains and maize. But in the final hours the EU accepted the Miami Group's position, confining the procedure to the first transboundary movements of GMOs for intentional introduction into the importing country's environment. This expressly excluded GMOs intended for direct use as food, feed or for processing, though - under a rider added by the EU - this would be re-examined at the first Conference of the Parties. Countries were left to regulate all other GMOs through their domestic legislation, an option which, of course, they already have.

The South - represented by the Like-Minded Group, formed essentially because three countries of the South (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) had broken ranks to join the United States of America-led Miami Group - made two attempts to compromise. First, it put forward a suggestion that the clause on intentional introduction into the environment shall exclude only:

- GMOs destined for processing which do not come into contact with the environment from the time of their entry into an importing country until they are processed.

- Genetically-modified micro-organisms destined to be used under contained conditions for the production of substances other than GMOs (e.g. insulins, enzymes).

- GMOs destined for research purposes carried out under contained conditions, provided that this is not for the purpose of developing GMOs for release into the environment.

- GMOs destined to be used for the production of pharmaceuticals which do not contain, or consist of, GMOs.

Further, an 'opting-out clause' would allow Parties to decide which particular GMOs should be exempt from the AIA procedure.

This proposal was rejected outright upon presentation.

The South then proposed that the AIA procedure should apply to GMOs destined for food, feed and processing, and the first meeting of the Conference of the Parties would decide how (rather than whether) it was to do so. This was rejected as well.

Accepting the proposals of the Miami Group and the EU would have had serious implications for human health and the safety of the environment. They would have excluded from the AIA procedure:

- Genetically modified fruits, vegetables and tubers for human consumption (e.g. strawberries, potato, tomato, squash, lemon).

- Bananas and fruit genetically engineered as vaccines for human consumption.

- Transgenic propagating material for breeding purposes and greenhouse cultivation.

- Transgenic canola imported for processing (at present banned in France and Greece).

- Transgenic soya and maize for animal feed.

- Genetically-engineered micro-organisms for use in yoghurt.

- Meetings of the Parties could also exempt additional GMOs.

The cumulative effect would be that the Protocol would be confined to covering only the narrowest possible range of GMOs that have been shown to pose a potentially serious risk. The risks posed by the bulk of GMOs sent to countries around the globe would be left unchecked.

In other critical areas, too, the EU shared the views of the Miami Group rather than those of the South. For example, the EU did not want the precautionary principle - which provides for measures to be taken in advance of scientific certainty - to be reflected in the operational part of the Protocol.

Again, the EU and the Miami Group opposed a Southern proposal to include a provision on liability and redress for damage caused by GMOs. They opted, instead, for a clause which would enable a separate process to begin negotiations on such a provision, but without any fixed time frame for concluding or adopting it. They also largely opposed the South's proposal that countries should take social and economic impacts of the introduction of GMOs into account.

If the Protocol had been accepted in the form proposed by the EU and the Miami Group, it would have been little more than a charter for the free and unhampered trade of GMOs and their products. Although the alternate head of the United States of America delegation, Rafe Pomerance, said 'We wanted a Protocol which would protect biodiversity and not harm world trade', it was clear that safety concerns were readily sacrificed.

The negotiations will resume on a date as yet undetermined. Will renewed talks be any different? The EU environment commissioner, Ritt Bjerregaard, blaming the United States of America and its allies for the breakdown, said the negotiations should be relaunched and concluded, with or without the United States of America. But unless the EU sheds its earlier positions and accepts the South's concerns, it is unlikely that a Biosafety Protocol will ever emerge, even then.

Gurdial Singh Nijar, public interests lawyer and international environmental consultant, is focal person for legal issues at the Third World Network, Penang, Malaysia.


A New Green Revolution


says that negotiators must stop exceeding their mandate if the promise of biotechnology is to be realized, and biodiversity protected

Many were disappointed that an agreed text for the Biosafety Protocol failed to emerge in February from the negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia. The objectives of the effort - to protect the world's biodiversity - arguably comprise the most important environmental challenge ever. After all, the other environmental challenges we face - climate change, air and water pollution, ozone depletion - are all, given enough political will and appropriate resources, reversible. But degraded habitats are, under the best of circumstances, difficult or impossible to restore. And once a habitat has been destroyed, it is gone; the species extinction that results is forever.Why, then, was agreement in Cartagena so elusive? The preponderance of the media coverage blamed an emergent group of United Nations member states - the Miami Group of agricultural exporting countries (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay and the United States of America). It was widely reported that the Miami Group refused in the final moments to accept any of several compromises put forward by Europe in an effort to extract consensus from a long and difficult process. This assignment of blame may comfort some in the disappointing aftermath, but my observations, both in Cartagena and over the long history of the Biodiversity Convention process, indicate that the reality of events was actually quite different. And the end result, though unfortunate, may actually presage a much more hopeful trend for the future than contemporaneous reports suggested.

In fact, several compromise scenarios were put forward in the final moments by different factions. Each faction rejected solutions that were acceptable to one or more of the others. No solution was found that satisfied everyone. Therefore, any attempt to assign blame to one faction or another misrepresents the reality of this complex and difficult negotiation.

A careful examination of the negotiating mandate laid down by the second Conference of the Parties in Jakarta shows that many of the stumbling blocks in Cartagena were issues that actually lay outside it. The negotiating group had, after all, been instructed to focus 'on transboundary movement, of any living modified organism resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, setting out for consideration, in particular, appropriate procedure for advance informed agreement'. Furthermore, the group had been instructed:

It wants:

- not [to] exceed the scope of the Convention;

- not [to] override or duplicate any other international legal instrument in this area;

- [to] be efficient and effective, and seek to minimize unnecessary negative impacts on biotechnology research and development and not to hinder unduly access to and transfer of technology.

Furthermore, it added: 'The process shall be guided by the need for all Parties to cooperate in good faith and to participate fully, with a view to the largest possible number of Parties to the Convention ratifying the Protocol.'

In addition to these very clear instructions, logic, common sense, and vast experience make clear that a Protocol relating to biodiversity should focus on materials which have a realistic possibility of harming it, as stipulated in the negotiating mandate. It is difficult to see how this could reasonably be expanded beyond the small subset of materials destined to be grown in an importing country. Foods intended for consumption (whether processed foods or bulk commodities), medicines, research materials destined for use in containment, and a host of other important materials all raise important issues that should be (and in virtually all cases, already are being) dealt with, but which clearly fall outside the mandate. Yet these and other essentially extraneous issues (e.g. food labelling, socio-economic impacts, liability and compensation) increasingly occupied a disproportionate amount of the time and energy of negotiators. In the end, they are what made agreement in Cartagena impossible.

None of the stumbling blocks that fall outside the scope of the negotiating mandate were introduced by the members of the Miami Group. Several - such as whether or not bulk commodity shipments should be captured under the Protocol, or what kind of labelling or information-sharing provisions would be required either for commodities or other materials - were introduced by the European Union (EU). One can only speculate why these were so important to the EU (parochial domestic politics can be suspected) but one thing is clear: they have nothing whatsoever to do with the management of the principal, and widely recognized, threats to biological diversity.

The issue of liability and compensation - so important to some developing countries - is puzzling. Countries clearly want to ensure that their farmers are indemnified against the catastrophic consequences of a widely used new seed failing to perform; the prospect of an unexpected famine is not to be taken lightly. But reputable seed companies already have warranties in place to make good losses farmers might suffer. And the process of producing new seeds through biotechnology, inherently more predictable and certain of results than classical seed production (itself hardly an uncertain science) means that, if anything, the risks of failure are less.


Arguments by sceptics that we have insufficient experience with biotechnology products do not withstand scrutiny. Transgenic crops were grown on approximately 28 million hectares around the world in 1998 alone, with a conspicuous lack of unpleasant surprises. Farmers have never before adopted new seeds so quickly. It is an easy choice for them, considering the economic and environmental challenges they face the world over - and the dramatic gains in economy, yields and sustainability that biotechnology varieties consistently deliver. In short, it is hard to credit the assertion that we need a global liability regime to protect farmers from product failure. Aside from the legal difficulties, such an unprecedented instrument would raise, the proposal clearly fails the 'do not override or duplicate' charge in the negotiating mandate.

There is still the argument that something totally unforeseen and disastrous could happen, and that we would need a global regime to ameliorate its consequence. But this is an argument from a mis-informed nightmare: daylight shows it to be insubstantial. Everything in our vast experience suggests that the risks associated with biotech varieties are no different in kind from those we already face in standard agricultural practice. In fact the environmental benefits of biotech varieties - such as drastic reductions in pesticide use, more effective weed control, and more efficient production - make it clear that there is a much greater risk of adverse impacts to the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources if we do not put these new products into wide-scale production as quickly as possible. There is no reason to enrich a legion of lawyers preparing to deal with dire consequences that will never come.

The argument that concerns about potential socio-economic disruptions should enable a country to block imports of genetically modified organisms that have been given a clean scientific bill of health is particularly troublesome. This would be a clear violation of World Trade Organization obligations. And the argument depends on the assumption that the socio-economic effect of introducing biotechnology into agriculture will be predominantly undesirable. Some justify this attitude by pointing to the negative side-effects of the green revolution. But many of these are related to the use, or mis-use, of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Others point to the economic transformations of agriculture over the past 50 years. Biotechnology is helping agriculture dramatically to reduce its reliance on such external chemical supplements: United States cotton growers were able to save, at a conservative estimate, the spraying of more than 3 million litres (approximately 48 railroad tank cars) of pesticide between 1996 and 1998, through using new biotechnology varieties.

Activists concerned about the accumulation of so-called 'endocrine disruptors', who nevertheless oppose biotechnology, should be called upon to explain why products such as insect resistant crops are anything but an enormous boon to everybody living downstream from cotton, or other pest-plagued fields. Given global hydrological cycles, that is every human being on the planet.

Such negative side-effects as there were of the green revolution are dwarfed by the millions of lives saved by abundant supplies of food that could have been produced no other way. Biotechnology promises to maintain and expand these productivity increases at substantially lower environmental cost. Anything that has such an impact on agricultural production inevitably benefits biodiversity by decreasing the threats flowing from the need to feed a growing population, the principal driving force behind the continuing conversion of scarce wild-land to agriculture.

Meanwhile, the first of a huge influx of new products that offer direct consumer health benefits are already arriving. These promise, through improved nutrition and 'functional foods', to decrease the risk of cancer, improve human and animal health, and produce human pharmaceuticals cheaply and safely.


What of the future of the Protocol? The crystal ball is murky. There is some reason to hope that the example set in Cartagena - of insisting on realistic and implementable provisions in international agreements - might lead to a reversal in the recent trend of adopting environmental agreements based less on a rational assessment of risks and benefits than to serve the distorted agenda of small groups of political activists.

One thing is clear. If the negotiators come together to craft an agreement consistent with their negotiating instructions - and work to develop a Protocol that could actually function based on widely accepted scientific knowledge and experience - then an agreement will be straightforward and relatively easy to reach. But if posturing for domestic political consumption continues to guide key parties, then the future is much more clouded, and the fate of any coordinated global action on behalf of biodiversity is in serious doubt.

Dr. L. Val Giddings is Vice President for Food and Agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization, United States of America.

Contents Next Article


Home | Contributors | Hot Links |
Feedback - Environment Forum | Subscription | Mailing List

In case of difficulties with this site please contact the webmaster at:

Copyrightę1999 Banson
All rights reserved.