by Mithre J Sandrasagra

United Nations ,12 Jan 2000 (IPS) -- The world's governments are meeting next week to finalize a legally-binding agreement on reducing potential risks from the trade in living modified organisms (LMOs) - life forms that have been genetically-engineered.

The meeting, set to take place in Montreal, Canada from January 24-28, reflects growing public concern about the possible side effects of biotechnology on the environment and human health. It was convened by the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

"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 UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which administers the convention secretariat.

Common examples of LMOs include tomatoes, grains, cassava, corn, and soybeans. Together, these agricultural LMOs form the basis of a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Pharmaceuticals derived using LMOs comprise an even larger industry. Last February, about 170 governments met in Cartagena, Colombia to finalize the agreement, but without success. The resumption of talks in Montreal will follow the First Session of the Extraordinary Conference in Cartagena, which was suspended due to major differences over the proposed scope of the treaty's regulatory powers.

[At Cartagena, the Miami group of five CBD members, but in effect orchestrating the views of the non-member and observer, the United States had blocked an international safety protocol, and in their presentations during the Seattle WTO preparations made clear that 'trade' interests and the WTO remit should prevail over those of the CBD.]

"Some wanted to restrict the scope of the Protocol to LMOs intended for introduction into the environment, such as seeds. Others argued for a broader scope that would include LMOs that are agricultural commodities or that are used for food, feed or processing," UNEP said in a statement released here.

Various blocs that emerged at the Cartagena talks are the Miami Group (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, and the US), 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 world).

If adopted, the biosafety agreement will form a protocol under the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity, which was signed at the Rio Earth Summit that same year and now has 174 parties.

The objectives of the Convention are "the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources." The Convention is thus the first global comprehensive agreement to address all aspects of biodiversity: genetic resources, species and ecosystems.

At informal consultations held in Montreal and Vienna, the president of the Extraordinary Session, Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr Maldonado said that "representatives of the negotiating groups all expressed their commitment to conclude a Biosafety Protocol and confirmed the political will to do so."

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

Since the early 1970s, genetic engineering - the ability to transfer genetic material in new ways and to radically alter the intricate genetic structure of individual living cells - has enabled scientists to genetically modify plants, animals and micro-organisms.

Through modern biotechnology techniques, genetic engineering and the resulting LMOs promise enormous benefits for agriculture, medicine and other fields.

Researchers are experimenting with micro-organisms, insects, fish and animals to find ways of altering their growth characteristics or of making them produce new substances.

Genetic engineering can create plants which are of a higher commercial value because they are resistant to pests and various other environmental pressures. Genetic engineering can also, perhaps most importantly, increase crop yields, as well as facilitate new medical treatments, vaccines and industrial products.

Many developing nations, however, find it in their interest to be concerned about the possible risks to biological diversity and human health of introducing foreign LMOs into their environments.

A Sri Lanka-based spokesman for Cultural Survival, a not-for-profit NGO that has espoused sustainable development in Sri Lanka for over 20 years, echoed a frequent complaint about genetically-engineered seeds: that they make Third World farmers dependant on Western corporations or donor agencies.

"Fields which had been tilled with genetically altered seed that promised 'hardy plants' required after two or three generations replanting with new seed which also had to be imported from abroad," he said.

Seeds for growing crops are a particularly important agenda item at the upcoming talks because they are used intentionally to propagate or reproduce LMOs in the environment.

Due to the fact that biotechnology is a very new field, "much about the interaction between LMOs with various ecosystems is not yet known," according to UNEP. "The introduction of genetically modified organisms should not proceed faster than advances in scientific understanding."

Traditional methods of artificially altering the genetic make-up of plants and animals, such as breeding selection and cross-fertilization, are low-tech and slower paced whereas modern methods can introduce a greater diversity of genes into organisms almost instantly.

Many countries with modern biotechnology industries do have domestic legislation. However, there are no binding international agreements covering LMOs that cross national borders because of trade or accidental releases.

Unresolved questions include liability, and the Protocol's relationship to other international agreements, particularly those under the World Trade Organization, "which 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."

Another concern is that many developing countries lack the technical, financial and institutional means to address biosafety issues.

"We need a widely-accepted protocol that protects the environment, strengthens the capacity of developing countries to ensure biosafety, complements existing national regulations, and promotes public confidence in biotechnology and the benefits it can offer," Toepfer said.

"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." (SUNS4584)