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Elements of a Biosafety Protocol: The position of the South

At Cartagena, the South, through its national delegations, put forward the basic constituents of a strong Biosafety Protocol. Gurdial Singh Nijar, who attended the Conference on behalf of the Third World Network, sets out and discusses these key elements.


COUNTRIES of the South withdrew all concessions they had made during the negotiations for an international Biosafety Protocol. Tewolde Egziabher, spokesperson for the South, said that these concessions were made to enable the conclusion of a protocol. There was no reciprocity, especially by the US-led Miami group and the negotiations collapsed. Fresh negotiations have seen rescheduled for a future date. For the next round, Egziabher said at the closing session held at Cartagena in Colombia, 'we are putting back on the table all the critical elements for a strong Protocol.'

The South has always advocated the need for a strong biosafety protocol. After all, it is their fields ultimately that will be the experimental grounds for transgenic crops. The countries of the South are also ill-equipped to deal with the hazards posed by this new technology.

These elements, and the rationale for their inclusion, include the following :

1. Scope: Protocol should include all GMOs and products

The protocol should cover an assessment of hazards posed by all genetically modified organisms(GMOs), combinations of GMOs and products derived from GMOs.

Transgenic crops released into the environment are likely to pose serious threats to the environment, human health and create serious socio-economic impacts. Similarly, commodities destined for food, feed and processing are potentially hazardous. Examples include: transgenic fruits, vegetables and tubers presently modified such as strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes, squash and lemon; genetically modified micro-organisms for use in yoghurt and for production of food enzyme; banana and other fruits engineered as vaccine for human consumption; transgenic soya and maize for animal feed; and, transgenic soya and maize for animal feed.

GMO-derived products

Products derived from GMOs (referred to in the negotiating text as 'products thereof') should be included as emerging scientific evidence now shows that these pose just as serious a danger as GMOs. For example, considerable amount of recombinant DNA persists in soy proteins, a product of transgenic soya beans. It can be transferred to the microflora in the intestinal tracts of humans and animals, and thence to the environment, including soil and water systems. Similarly the Bt toxin in products from Bt corn remains active. Antibiotic resistance markers in products derived from GMOs may promote resistance to antibiotics and result in new and reemerging infectious diseases.

The protocol should include activities of such GMOs as well. All activities of these GMOs and products should be covered, such as: deliberate release into the environment; placing on the market; all forms of handling and use, including contained use, and use for experimental or other development purposes; transboundary movements; and transportation within the country.

The protocol should also cover the whole range of activities, which would then involve the entire life-cycle of the GMOs and products, from development to disposal.

Precautionary principle

2. The precautionary principle: An integral element of the protocol

It is of critical importance that this principle is included in the opeartive part of the protocol. This would allow countries to reject GMOs and products if there is no firm scientific certainty of its safety. Full scientific certainty or consensus of the harmful effects of this new technology, involving for the first time ever the insertion of foreign genes into a completely different species, is unlikely at present. There are no base line data; nor has monitoring been done for a sufficiently long period of time. Live material is being manipulated. It is unpredictable. It can reproduce and mutate. One single incident can have catastrophic results of far greater magnitude than harm by physical or chemical disasters such as Chernobyl and Bhopal.

The precautionary principle allows countries to err on the side of caution and refuse entry of GMOs and products. The principle is an integral element in national laws of several countries such as the European Union, as well as in international instruments, such as the The Convention on Biological Diversity and the Commission on Sustainable Development. It is even operationalised in the trade-focussed agreement on Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary Measures, under the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Including this principle in the protocol has other important consequences. Then any import refusal of GMOs on this basis cannot be attacked as being unjustifiably trade restrictive under the WTO.

3. The right to say no to import of GMOs or derived products

Countries should have the sovereign right to refuse the import of GMOs and products thereof. Countries of export should therefore ensure that the prior informed consent of the importing country is obtained, without which there can be no such export. This procedure is described in the negotiating text as as Advanced Informed Agreement (AIA). The importing countries can then carry out risk assessment and decide accordingly. There should be no time limit as this might impair a full and adequate assessment of risk. It took Europe two years, for example, to approve transgenic maize from the US.

4. The right to take stricter measures than those set out in the protocol

As the protocol is expected to be a consensus document, with the lowest minimum agreed provisions, the protocol should allow countries to take stricter measures and impose higher standards to safeguard their environment and human health.

5. The protocol must provide for liability and redress

A protocol which deals with safety, would be meaningless if there are no sanctions and redress for violating the standards and procedures agreed to by the international community. The State should be made liable for acts of its operators which results in harm to another country. This is in accordance with international law. The liability should be strict, and not fault-based, as is accepted by both national and international regimes for harm caused by ultra-hazardous products and activities.

6. Segregation and labelling should be key elements in the protocol

First, segregation will facilitate identification of the GMO and products thereof. This is especially important as special rules on safety are applicable to such products. It will then be possible, in the event risks are found or established to recall, withdraw from the market, or destroy the GMOs or the products thereof.

It is now clear that segregation is possible. This will enable suppliers to provide genetically free food to consumers. Labelling is essential for the consumers' right to choose the kind of food they wish to eat.

Economic and health impacts

7. Socio-economic impacts

Countries should be entitled to assess the impact of the GMO or products thereof. These, for example, could destroy agriculture in centres of biodiversity; impair or diplace indigenous technologies critical to the maintenance of biodiversity and sustainable development, displace crops or exports and undermine a country's economy and cause social instability.

8. Impacts on human health

It is of the utmost importance for the protocol to deal with adverse impacts on human health. These impacts are now well known. For example, the frequent use of antibiotic marker genes in GMOs is associated with the increase in the resistance to antibiotics. Recently a woman in Hong Kong died despite heavy doses of vancomycin, widely seen as the last line of defence against bacterial infections. There could also be a proliferation of new and emerging diseases as a result.

9. Relationship with trade instruments

The protocol is being negotiated under the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) which is about preserving the world's diversity and promoting sustainable development. GMOs and products thereof threaten this and human health. Therefore this protocol cannot be made subordinate to other international instruments, such as the WTO, which promotes free trade (including GMO commodities and products) regardless of environmental and health concerns. (Third World Resurgence No. 104/105, April/May 1999)

 


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