Global Meeting Defines Biosafety Measures

MONTPELLIER, France, December 12, 2000 (ENS) - With concerns over genetically modified foods unabated around the world, officials from the 177 member governments of the Convention on Biological Diversity are meeting in Montpellier to discuss practical steps for minimizing some of the potential risks of biotechnology.

The negotiators on the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (ICCP)convened yesterday and will continue talks through Friday.

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The panel at the opening plenary session (left to right) UNEP Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer; Minister of Environment of France, Dominique Voynet; ICCP Chair, Ambassador Philemon Yang; Convention on Biological Diversity Executive Secretary, Hamdallah Zedan; and the Mayor of Montpellier, Georges Freche. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin (ENB))
"The world's governments adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety earlier this year to establish a fair and transparent system for international trade in genetically modified organisms," said Klaus Toepfer executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which administers the Secretariat for the 1992 Biodiversity Convention, under which the Protocol was negotiated.

"Many of the disagreements about living modified organisms that are being aired today are addressed in this groundbreaking agreement. The sooner governments make the Protocol operational, the sooner we can assure the public that human health and the natural environment are being fully protected," he said.

Adopted in January 2000, the Biosafety Protocol aims to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

In Bordeaux Monday, in an action timed to coincide with the biosafety talks, Greenpeace protested against the unloading of 20,000 tons of genetically engineered soybeans from the bulk carrier Polydefkis P at the port of Bassens.

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Greenpeacers protest unloading of genetically modified U.S. soybeans in Bordeaux today. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
After activists prevented the bulk carrier from entering the docks for more than an hour, the port authority gave a public commitment not to unload the genetically engineered soybeans. The load originated from New Orleans and was to be used for animal feed and oil production in France.

In Europe, some retailers and food producers have rejected animal products coming from animals fed with genetically engineered grains.

In Montpellier, the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety will seek progress on crafting the procedures and practical details that are required to make the Protocol effective.

Key issues include:

Establishing a framework for capacity building to help developing countries participate fully in the Protocol is also essential.

An example of how this could be done is a $39 million project funded by the Global Environment Facility that UNEP will implement over the next three years and six months. This project will help 100 countries prepare their National Biosafety Frameworks. It will facilitate the exchange of experience and best practices amongst developing countries and countries with economies in transition, including through a series of global and regional workshops.

Under the Protocol, governments will decide whether or not to accept imports of genetically modified organisms on the basis of risk assessments. These assessments are to be undertaken in a scientific manner according to recognized risk assessment techniques.

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UNEP Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer (left) and CBD Executive Secretary, Hamdallah Zedan between meetings (Photo courtesy ENB)
However, because the Protocol is based on the precautionary approach, importers can decide not to accept imports of genetically modified organisms "if there is a lack of scientific certainty due to insufficient scientific information and knowledge on whether or not the organism poses a risk to the environment or human health," UNEP said.

"When the biosafety regime was first adopted it was widely applauded by governments - both those that are keen to export genetically modified foods and those that have expressed reservations about biotechnology - as a fair and balanced compromise solution," said Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention.

"While the debate over all aspects of biotechnology will clearly continue for many years, the best way forward is to recognize this hard fought agreement as a practical starting point," he said.

The Protocol was adopted by 150 governments and to date has been signed by 76 governments plus the European Community. It will remain open for signature at United Nations headquarters in New York until June 4, 2001.

After 50 governments have ratified the Protocol it will enter into force and become legally binding. One country, Bulgaria, has already ratified the agreement. If governments move quickly, this could happen as early as 2002, UNEP says.