Treaty on international trade in GMOs to become law - 13 June 2003
Nairobi, 13 June 2003 - Palau has become the 50th country to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, starting a 90-day countdown to the agreement's entry into force.
Adopted in January 2000 by the member governments of the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Protocol sets out the first comprehensive regulatory system for ensuring the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with a specific focus on movements of these organisms across national borders.
"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," he said.
The 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).
"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.
"By building these resources and strengthening international collaboration on biosafety, the Protocol will boost public confidence in our ability to manage GMOs safely. I therefore urge all governments to ratify and join the Protocol as soon as possible," he said.
The Cartagena Protocol features one set of procedures for GMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment, and one for GMOs that are to be used directly as food or feed or for processing. Both are designed to ensure that recipient countries are provided with the information they need for making informed decisions about whether or not to accept GMO imports.
Governments will exchange information through a Biosafety Clearing-House and are to base their decisions on scientifically sound risk assessments. In cases where scientific certainty is lacking due to insufficient scientific information about a GMO's potential adverse effects, a government may take a decision based on a desire to avoid or minimize such potential adverse effects.
When a country that is a member of the Protocol decides to allow the import of a GMO, all exporters will need to ensure that each shipment is accompanied by appropriate documentation. Governments will have to adopt measures for managing any risks identified by risk assessments and continue to monitor and control any risks that may emerge in the future. This applies to traded as well as domestically produced GMOs.
Recognizing the potential trade implications of the agreement, the drafters of the Cartagena Protocol made every effort to ensure that its provisions and those of the World Trade Organization are mutually supportive. The Protocol states that its provisions are intended neither to override nor to be subordinate to existing international agreements.
"Avoiding potential conflicts between trade laws and the biosafety regime will require good will and careful management," said Mr. Toepfer. "Improving the coordination among the various international regimes can greatly strengthen biosafety while avoiding potential conflicts and reconciling the legitimate interests of trade, biosafety and other sectors."
Proponents of GMOs argue that biotechnology will boost food security for the world's growing population by raising sustainable food production. It will benefit the environment by reducing the need for more farmland, irrigation and pesticides. It will also provide better medical treatments and vaccines, new industrial products and improved fibres and fuels.
For others, however, this rapidly advancing science raises a tangle of ethical, environmental, social and health issues. Because modern biotechnology is still so new, they say, much is unknown about how its products may behave and evolve, and how they may interact with other species.
To help developing countries assess the potential risks and rewards of genetically engineered crops, UNEP, with funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), is overseeing the largest capacity building project ever conceived in the field of biosafety.
The $38.4 million scheme is helping up to 100 countries develop the scientific and legal skills needed for evaluating the health and environmental issues surrounding imports of so-called Living Modified Organisms (LMOs), as they are known under the Protocol.
"The Cartagena Protocol institutionalises the precautionary approach and establishes a rigorous advanced informed agreement procedure as well," said Mr. Toepfer. "The success of this procedure and of the entire Protocol depends on developing countries having the skills and systems in place for evaluating GMO imports and handling them safely. This is why this multi-million-dollar capacity-building project is so important."
The first Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol will take place in the first quarter of 2004 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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