EU says Biosafety Protocol negotiations risk failure

The EU Environment Commissioner has expressed concerns that next week's international negotiations for a protocol on genetically modified organisms may fail due to the entrenched positions of the industry and certain developing countries.

The European Union says it strongly supports the elaboration of a Biosafety Protocol, based on the precautionary principle and which balances environmental and trade concerns. However, it claims the successful conclusion of the negotiations is endangered by the rather extreme positions taken on the one hand by the main exporters of genetically modified agricultural crops who want to void the Protocol of any real content and, on the other hand, by a number of developing countries, which pursue objectives in areas peripheral to the main issues.

The final negotiation meeting of the Protocol on Biosafety will take place in Columbia on 14-23 February 1999. The negotiations were kicked off by the second Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in November 1995 in Jakarta. That was a response to the growing concern in relation to developing countries’ possibilities to deal with the importation of living modified organisms (LMOs) deriving from modern biotechnology, which might be harmful to their biodiversity.

The Protocol is intended to create a framework for the international transboundary movement of LMOs derived from modern biotechnology and that, for this purpose, the core of which would be an ‘Advance Informed Agreement’ procedure.

According to UNEP, the delegates face an ambitious agenda, as many core issues remain unresolved. One key point is whether the protocol will address only LMOs themselves or also processed products containing dead modified organisms or non-living LMO components, such as certain vaccines, drugs, processed foods, and food additives. Also on the agenda is how to handle liability, a particularly difficult issue in the international context.

Widespread dissemination and the release of LMOs into the environment take place in the context of experimental field trials, large scale agriculture, marketing of commodities etc. International action based on the precautionary principle is necessary, says the Commission. An indispensable step to achieve safety in biotechnology is to provide any country of import with the possibility to take reasoned and scientifically based decisions prior to the import of LMOs.

The biotech crop-exporting countries favour positions that would result in a Protocol without any environmental credibility. They favour the exclusion of agricultural commodities; that is, all commercial mass movements from the scope of the Protocol. This would in practice mean excluding 99% of the genetically modified organisms that the Protocol is supposed to cover. Another position canvassed by crop-exporting countries is to void the Protocol of any substance by putting all obligations under the Protocol on the Party of import (mostly developing countries) and eliminating any burdens on the Party of export (mostly developed countries). The result would be a Protocol with an unfair balance of obligations between the Parties of export and the Parties of import, aiming primarily at liberalising biotech trade.

At the same time, the Commission says many developing countries are still pursuing positions that appear to be less realistic and difficult to solve in the present round of talks, and that deflect the attention from the central issues under the Protocol.

More information on next week’s meeting can be found on the Biodiversity Convention website.

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