Biosafety Protocol Agreed

MONTREAL, Canada, January 30, 2000 (ENS) - A treaty regulating international transport and release of genetically modified organisms to protect natural biological diversity was agreed Saturday after years of difficult negotiations. Genetically altered seeds, microbes, crops and animals can be refused entry by countries that consider them a threat to their environment or public health.

Delegates from 130 governments officially adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in the early hours of Saturday morning. The agreement permits the labeling of products derived from the biotech organisms and allows countries to block entry of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) also called living modified organisms (LMOs).

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Juan Mayr, Colombia's environment minister and president of the conference, congratulates David Anderson, Canada's environment minister, who played an strong role in bringing the opposing sides together. (Photos courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
The new protocol, an addition to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, deals with the potential dangers of release into the environment of organisms created by gene splicing. These new varieties of crops or microorganisms for pharmaceuticals could change natural plants or microbes if allowed to spread unchecked, some scientists fear.

The protocol marks the first time nations have agreed on an attempt to prevent environmental problems before they begin.

The protocol gives governments the right to block imports of LMOs if there is "reasonable doubt" that they could endanger public health or the environment. Before this agreement, imports could be stopped only if there was scientific evidence that LMO crops used in food production could be dangerous.

Final debates centred around labeling and the precautionary principle.

Late Friday night, the Europeans yielded ground on the contentious issue of labeling, conceding that it is impossible to segregate and label bulk products such as corn and soybeans.

The Miami Group, producers of most of the world's LMO's - the United States, Canada and Australia, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay - yielded on the "precautionary principle" that would allow countries to reject LMOs because of fears they might be harmful to the environment or health. This group had objected to including the word "health," maintaining that health should not be part of an agreement on biodiversity.

But they succeeded in crafting the agreement so that it does not require mandatory labeling of all food products derived from LMOs. Products will have documentation saying shipments "may contain" LMOs.

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European Union Environment Commission Margot Wallstrom
Countries or regions like the European Union, which have established a labeling system for genetically modified products, will be able to keep their regulations. Developing nations will get help to set up their own regulatory systems.

Saturday's agreement states that detailed requirements, including specification of the identity of the modified organisms and any unique identification to be placed on them, will be decided no later than two years after the protocol’s entry into force.

Free trade issues such as the relationship between the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the new protocol were deliberately left vague. No one can predict at this point what might happen if a biotech trade dispute goes to the WTO for resolution. European diplomats said the WTO cannot ignore the protocol if a country follows the protocol's rules and blocks an import.

The agreement comes a year after talks in Cartegena, Colombia collapsed because of opposition to the draft treaty from the U.S, Canada and other agricultural exporters who argued that it would be an unfair obstacle to free trade.

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U.S. chief negotiator Frank Loy
Saturday, Frank Loy, the U.S. undersecretary of state for global affairs, who led the U.S. delegation in Montreal, said the protocol "is a major improvement" over the version rejected in Cartagena.

Canada's Environment Minister David Anderson who led the negotiations for the Miami Group, told the delegates, "This is the most important attempt by the global community to genuinely reconcile environmental and trade interests. The world is watching us and history will certainly judge us. I agree that we cannot afford to start off this new millennium without a biosafety protocol and run the risk of undermining the integrity of the Convention on Biological Diversity."

Margot Wallström, European Commissioner for Environment, Nuclear Safety, and Civil Protection, said this protocol is a breakthrough for international trade and the environment. The Protocol will help build confidence, ease public concern over LMOs, and provide predictability for industry, she said.

Joyce Groote, head of the Global Industry Coalition, which represents about 2,200 biotechnology companies world-wide, said that the protocol represents a significant step forward, by providing a framework to protect biodiversity, by recognizing the importance of the biotech industy, and by building a framework for continued investment in production, innovation, and development, from which we can all share the resulting social and economic benefits.

Yoke Ling Chee of the Third World Network said on behalf of the NGOs present that this protocol is a first major step in a long journey, and that the NGOs look forward to going home to work with national governments at the regional level, and look forward working with the COP again on the liability regime. The issue of what party accepts financial liability in case of damage to the environment has still to be decided.

protesters Protestors who have been camping on the lawns of the meeting hall throughout the week braving the sub-zero temperatures to demand a strongly protective agreement, stepped up their activity Friday and moved onto the rue de l'Universite soliciting participation from passing motorists.

The organizers wanted to make sure that the delegates knew they were being watched, that there was serious public interest in what was happening. Their message was simple - they want a strong protocol, and increased awareness of the issues surrounding modified organisms intended for food or animal feed.

The friendly, creative action was organized by BAM! (Bio Action Montreal), a collective of concerned parties such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, students, and other interest groups.

The biosafety protocol still must be ratified by 50 countries that have already signed the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Because the U.S. Senate has not ratified the convention, the United States had no official standing in Montreal and is not technically bound to honor the new protocol. {Earth Negotiations Bulletin contributed to this report.}