Trading in Biotech Organisms: Can It Be Safe?

OXFORD, UK, January 6, 2000 (ENS) - Biotechnology and international trade in genetically modified organisms is high on the international agenda this month.

Scientists can now transfer genetic material - DNA, the biochemical instructions governing the development of cells and organisms - through biochemical means to radically alter the genetic structure of individual living cells. They can introduce a great diversity of genes into plants, animals, and micro-organisms almost instantly.

While some believe that modern biotechnology promises improvements in human well-being, these procedures raise ethical, environmental, and health issues. These concerns are being picked up this month in two arenas where negotiations stumbled last year.

The world's governments are resuming talks towards a legally binding biosafety agreement in Montreal on January 24 after negotiations in Colombia were suspended 11 months ago. They will be dealing with reduction of potential risks from the transboundary movement of living modified organisms.

In another forum, trade diplomats are preparing for resumption of World Trade Organization (WTO) talks. Agriculture is up for negotiation, and the products of biotechnology are in the spotlight.

WTO Gears Up for Talks

The WTO General Council on December 17, 1999 decided to postpone until early 2000 a decision on how to proceed with issues outstanding from the Seattle Ministerial Conference. The WTO meeting collapsed in disarray December 3, in Seattle, Washington after environmental and labor protesters disrupted proceedings during the first two days of a four day meeting.

On Wednesday, at the 54th Annual Farming Conference in Oxford, England, August Schumacher, Jr., Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, called for quick action to launch another round of global trade talks.

Facilitating trade in the products of new technologies, including biotechnology, is one of the five essentials for the new round of WTO talks, Schumacher said.


A new technology co-developed by U.S. and Mexican scientists called microencapsulation could help useful viruses, bacteria, and other environmentally friendly biopesticides compete with traditional chemical pesticides. (All photos courtesy USDA Agricultural Research Service)
"The concept of a working group on biotechnology was a topic of vigorous debate by WTO members at the [Seattle] Ministerial. We still think that a biotech working group is the best way to address this issue. Besides, there are many forums legitimately discussing biotechnology - the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Biosafety Protocol. However, the trade aspects of the agricultural biotechnology issue should also be addressed in the WTO context, as well as bilaterally," said Schumacher.

U.S. President Bill Clinton and European Commission President Romano Prodi have agreed to high level talks on biotechnology and to consult with those outside government in this process, Schumacher told the farm meeting. The approval processes for biotech products and market access will be up for discussion.

A consultative forum that will advise the two leaders is expected to include scientists, academics, consumers, and environmental groups.

The United States has also formed an agricultural partnership with China focusing on technical exchanges in biotechnology, aquaculture, and natural resources and the environment. At the Seattle Ministerial, China recommitted to this agreement, Schumacher said. This agreement is separate from the bilateral WTO agreement and is not contingent on China's WTO accession which is now in process.

Biosafety Treaty Talks to Resume

The latest attempt to agree on a Biosafety Protocol under the existing Convention on Biological Diversity took place last February in Cartagena, Colombia. Talks were suspended when officials were unable to finalize the text in the time available due to a number of outstanding differences.

Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) include food crops that have been genetically modified for greater productivity or nutritional value, or for resistance to pests or diseases. Common examples include tomatoes, grains, cassava, corn, and soybeans. Seeds for growing crops are particularly important to negotiators because they are used intentionally to propagate or reproduce LMOs in the environment. Together, these agricultural LMOs form the basis of a multi-billion-dollar global industry.

Pharmaceuticals derived using LMOs form the basis of an even larger industry.


Biotechnology has produced a new live vaccine to combat shipping fever in cattle, sheep and goats, the biggest killer of beef cattle in feedlots.
The biosafety talks reflect growing public concerns about the potential risks of biotechnology. Many countries with modern biotechnology industries do have domestic legislation. But there are no binding international agreements covering LMOs that cross national borders because of trade or accidental releases.

"The ability of modern biotechnology to contribute to human well-being in the 21st century will be boosted dramatically if the international community takes action now to create credible and effective safeguards for the environment," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which administers the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, under which the talks are taking place.

Governments have disagreed over the proposed scope of the Biosafety Protocol's regulatory powers. Some have wanted to restrict the scope of the Protocol to LMOs intended for introduction into the environment, such as seeds. Others have argued for a broader scope that would include LMOs that are agricultural commodities or that are used for food, feed, or processing.

At informal consultations in Vienna in September, there was a general agreement that the scope should be broad. Negotiators also advanced on a conceptual framework for designing the practical procedures that would apply to these commodities.


To analyze genes in potatoes, USDA plant physiologist William Belknap prepares potato tissue under liquid nitrogen. He hopes to improve the nutritional value of Andean potatoes by blocking natural but bitter compounds called glycoalkaloids. Some Andean communities remove the glycoalkaloids, but their process removes proteins and vitamins too.
Another contentious issue is liability: if LMOs enter the environment and cause damage, who pays? Also unresolved is how to minimize the potential socio-economic impacts, such as the competitive decline of traditional crops faced with LMO imports.

Another unresolved question relates to the Protocol's relationship to other international agreements, particularly those under the World Trade Organization.

Many developing countries lack the technical, financial, institutional, and human resources to address biosafety. They need greater capacity for assessing and managing risks, establishing adequate information systems, and developing expert human resources in biotechnology.

"Reducing unnecessary and potentially catastrophic risks is in the best interest of everyone - developed and developing countries, consumers and industry, and all those who care deeply about our natural environment," Toepfer said.

The negotiating groups in the Biosafety Protocol process are the Miami Group (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, and the U.S.), the European Union, the Central and Eastern European Countries, the Compromise Group, and the Like-Minded Group of Countries which includes most of the developing countries.

WTO Rules and Biosafety Protocol Could Conflict Biosafety is a new term used to describe efforts to reduce and eliminate the potential risks resulting from biotechnology and its products. It is based on the precautionary principle, which states that the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to postpone action when there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage.


USDA geneticist Olin Anderson has isolated a wheat gene to make "strong dough." Another re-tooled wheat gene could modify wheat starch making it suitable for hundreds of industrial uses from pastes to papers to textiles.
The commercialization of biotechnology has spawned multi-billion-dollar industries for foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals that continue to grow at a dramatic pace.

Under WTO rules, the regulation of trade must be based on "sound scientific knowledge."

Under environmental regimes, the agreed standard of proof is the precautionary principle.

The WTO does not accept socio-economic concerns, such as the risk that exports of genetically engineered crops may replace traditional ones and undermine local cultures and traditions in importing countries.

The subsidiary agreements of the WTO, including the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement, Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement, and the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property , also contain specific provisions that apply to the biosafety issue.