8 December 2000

Dear friends and colleagues,

This mail-out is a TWN briefing note on the recommendations by the meeting of technical experts on the Biosafety Clearing House. It addresses some of the key issues that were considered at the meeting and provides an analysis of them.

We hope that you will find this briefing note useful in your preparations for ICCP 1.

With best wishes,

Chee Yoke Ling and Lim Li Lin

Third World Network

228 Macalister Road

10400 Penang




Doc. TWN/Biosafety/2000/G


Many of the recommendations to effectively operationalise the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) have been tempered with ‘technical’ considerations. Although some of these considerations may be valid and reasonable, Parties should not lose sight of what the substantive issues are: the BCH must assist Parties to take decisions nationally on the import of genetically engineered organisms. A great deal of information is needed in order to make truly informed decisions. The needs of the Parties must be established first and foremost, and the BCH must assist in this process. Technical considerations can be dealt with as and when they arise. They should not be used as an excuse to weaken the important role of the BCH in providing critical information to Parties.

As a priority, the BCH should contain critical information needed for making decisions and for implementing other parts of the Protocol, such as molecular genetic characterisation data. (This data is often kept confidential at the request of the applicant). This information is crucial for biosafety to determine the stability of the transgenic line. It is crucial for risk assessment and risk management, and for identification and traceability when considering liability. It is also necessary for Parties to be able to determine exactly what genetically engineered variety they are importing.


1.   The meeting recognized the need for the BCH to be operational by the time the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety enters into force, and recommended that implementation of the BCH should be conducted in stages, beginning with a ‘pilot phase’. The pilot phase should extend until at least the second meeting of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (ICCP) (October 2001) and should:

a.   incorporate information necessary for implementing the Protocol in a timely manner

b.   make information readily available to Parties

c.   function efficiently

It was recommended that the pilot phase should concentrate on

a.   information to facilitate decision-making, including that required under the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) procedure

b.   information related to procedures for living modified organisms for food, feed or for processing (LMOs-FFP)

2.   The meeting recommended that for information to facilitate decision-making, including that required under the AIA procedure, a ‘distributed approach’ to storage of information should be adopted. This means that there will be one central portal (website) with links to other websites with the relevant information.

For information related to procedures for LMOs-FFP, the meeting recommended a centralised approach to storage and management of information. This means that all the information related to the procedures for LMOs-FFP would be collected on one website.

3.   It was also recommended that the number of languages used for submitting information during the pilot phase should be limited, due to resource implications.

4.   The meeting recommended that all information provided to the BCH should be information that is not considered confidential.


1.   It was recognized that further development of the BCH must ensure that all types of information to be processed by the BCH are effectively incorporated. According to Article 20(1) of the Protocol, the BCH will:

a.   facilitate the exchange of scientific, technical, environmental and legal information on, and experience with LMOs

b.   assist Parties to implement the Protocol, taking into account the special needs of developing country Parties, in particular the least developed and small island developing States among them, and countries with economies in transition as well as countries that are centres of origin and genetic diversity.

These objectives are far broader than what has been highlighted to be the priorities for the pilot phase. Article 20(2) also states that the BCH shall also provide access, where possible, to other international biosafety information exchange mechanisms. While a pilot phase may be necessary, the full operation of the BCH must not be limited in its scope in any way or delayed due to the emphasis given to the pilot phase priorities.

2.   There are two different models recommended for storage and management of information. For information to facilitate decision-making, including that required under the AIA procedure, the distributed approach may result in difficulty for users to access the required information. Since all the information is not centrally stored, there may be technical difficulties in accessing some of the web links, and a distributed approach will not provide the user with a comprehensive survey of all the information available.

3.   The South will be more disadvantaged if the use of all six UN official languages is limited. Many users in many parts of the world may not be able to fully understand the information that is made available.

4.   If only information that is considered not confidential is placed on the BCH, it will be up to Parties to exchange confidential information on a bilateral basis using other means of information exchange. Placing confidential information on the BCH (with secured access only to Parties) would however mean that Parties are able to freely view the information without having to engage bilaterally with another Party. Which information is determined as being confidential will vary from country to country. How will a Party know what to ask for and which other Party to engage in a bilateral exchange of confidential information? This will also have resource implications on each Party and the process of exchanging confidential information in this manner will also be far slower and more cumbersome.