Box 9: Precaution

Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration provides that:

“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing costeffective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

The Cartagena Protocol applies precaution not just to biodiversity, but to potential risks to human health as well. Additionally it gives importing countries the right to take into account socioeconomic concerns (provided their actions are “consistent with their international obligations”). Such concerns could include the risk that imports of genetically engineered foods may replace traditional crops, undermine local cultures and traditions or reduce the value of biodiversity to indigenous communities.

Source: Secretariat of the CBD 2000, UN 1992, CBD and UNEP 2003

At a global level, the key response to concerns about biosafety is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety adopted in 2000 under the CBD of 1992. The Protocol is primarily concerned with transboundary movement of LMOs; it provides a framework for countries to assess risks associated with LMO prior to authorizing importation. It seeks to ensure:

“An adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on transboundary movements”
(Secretariat of the CBD 2000).

Two key concepts, biosafety and precaution, form the basis for the framework developed in the Protocol. Biosafety is based on the concept of precaution and implies minimizing the risk to human, animal and environment health (see Box 9). It includes a range of measures, policies and procedures to minimize potential risks. The precautionary approach has been specifically incorporated in the Protocol.

Although there remains much controversy about what exactly constitutes a precautionary approach, there is evidence of wide support for it as reflected in Box 10. The Cartagena Protocol applies the precautionary approach to biodiversity and to human risks. It gives importing countries the right to take socioeconomic considerations into account, as long as these are consistent with their international obligations. The Protocol allows governments on the basis of precaution to prohibit the import of a GMO, even where there is insufficient scientific evidence about potential adverse effects (CBD and UNEP 2003).

Box 10: IUCN-The World Conservation Union calls for precaution

IUCN is a global union of governments, civil society organizations (CSOs) and experts; it brings together 82 state members, 112 government agencies, 784 national NGOs, 33 affiliate members and 84 international NGOs. Consequently it is an important global voice.

In 2002, IUCN adopted a resolution on GMOs, which noted the lack of knowledge of the effects on biodiversity and on the potential role of GMOs in “achieving global food security.” which it notes “has not been adequately demonstrated so far.” It focuses on the need to adopt a precautionary approach to GMO as set out in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. To this end it calls “upon key private sector companies to integrate biodiversity into their corporate social responsibilities and actions.”

In 2004, IUCN, at its 3rd World Conservation Congress held in Bangkok, Thailand, passed a resolution, which calls for “a moratorium on further environmental releases of GMOs until they can be demonstrated to be safe beyond reasonable doubt.” It also requests the IUCN Council to:

  • Prepare policy guidance for sustainable GMOs through a multifaceted approach;
  • Promote and support initiatives to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity; and
  • Encourage public awareness and promote access to information.

While the resolution was sponsored by most state and NGO-members, state members such as Japan, The Netherlands and Sweden were against the resolution. The US government and agency members refrained from the deliberations.

Source: IUCN 2004

The Protocol entered into force in July 2003. Although the Protocol has been signed by 37 African countries, many of these have not yet ratified it or developed laws to incorporate it into their legal framework (CBD 2006): Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Table 2 shows the status of the Cartagena Protocol in African countries.

Table 2: African countries status on Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
Country Signature Ratification/accession Entry into force

Algeria 25 May 2000 5 August 2004 3 November 2004
Benin 24 May 2000 2 March 2005 31 May 2005
Botswana 1 June 2001 11 June 2002 11 September 2003
Burkina Faso 24 May 2000 4 August 2003 2 November 2003
Cameroon 9 February 2001 20 February 2003 11 September 2003
Cape Verde 1 November 2005 30 January 2006
Central African Republic 24 May 2000
Chad 24 May 2000
Congo 21 November 2000
Côte d’Ivoire
Democratic Republic of the Congo 23 March 2005 21 June 2005
Djibouti 8 April 2002 11 September 2003
Egypt 20 December 2000 23 December 2003 21 March 2004
Equatorial Guinea
Eritrea 10 March 2005 8 June 2005
Ethiopia 24 May 2000 9 October 2003 7 January 2004
Gambia 24 May 2000 9 June 2004 7 September 2004
Ghana 30 May 2003 11 September 2003
Guinea 24 May 2000
Kenya 15 May 2000 24 January 2002 11 September 2003
Lesotho 20 September 2001 11 September 2003
Liberia 15 February 2002 11 September 2003
Libya 14 June 2005 12 September 2005
Madagascar 14 September 2000 24 November 2003 22 February 2004
Malawi 24 May 2000
Mali 4 April 2001 28 August 2002 11 September 2003
Mauritania 22 July 2005 20 October 2005
Mauritius 11 April 2002 11 September 2003
Morocco 25 May 2000
Mozambique 24 May 2000 21 October 2002 11 September 2003
Namibia 24 May 2000 10 February 2005 11 May 2005
Niger 24 May 2000 30 September 2004 29 December 2004
Nigeria 24 May 2000 15 July 2003 13 October 2003
Rwanda 24 May 2000 22 July 2004 20 October 2004
São Tomé and Príncipe
Senegal 31 October 2000 8 October 2003 6 January 2004
Seychelles 23 January 2001 13 May 2004 11 August 2004
Sierra Leone
South Africa 14 August 2003 12 November 2003
Sudan 13 June 2005 11 September 2005
Swaziland 13 January 2006 13 April 2006
Tanzania 24 April 2003 11 September 2003
Togo 24 May 2000 2 July 2004 30 September 2004
Tunisia 19 April 2001 22 January 2003 11 September 2003
Uganda 24 May 2000 30 November 2001 11 September 2003
Zambia 27 April 2004 25 July 2004
Zimbabwe 4 June 2001 25 February 2005 26 May 2005

Source: CBD 2006

African countries are faced with the challenge of dealing with transboundary movement of GMOs and illegal use or research activities. Some African country borders are porous, difficult to police and at times subject to bribery (GMWatch 2005). GM maize and rice are already being planted illegally in various regions of Tanzania (Balile 2005). Adoption and ratification of the Protocol could be a useful option. In the absence of effective monitoring and enforcement, bans on the import of GM seeds are of no effect (Balile 2005). The shipment of grain requires leak-proof containers to avoid unintended GMO product contamination. Therefore, responsible deployment of GM crops needs to encompass the whole technology development process, from the pre-release risk assessment, to biosafety considerations, to post-release monitoring (FAO 2005). Monitoring GM crops will provide information for policies and regulations; it will give producers and policymakers better information to help them develop safer adoption processes.