The way forward
Now that the Biosafety Protocol has been negotiated, what are the steps that can be taken to fill in the gaps left by the Protocol? Some key dates and suggestions for consideration are set out below.
THE Protocol will be opened for governments to sign when the Conference of the Parties to the CBD meets in May in Nairobi.
Only Parties to the CBD can be Party to the Protocol. After signing, 50 countries have to ratify the Protocol for it to be enforced.
Since the Protocol provides a framework of minimum standards, national governments should formulate domestic laws, based on the Precautionary Principle, that ensure the highest standards of biosafety.
Since the Protocol is not comprehensive in scope, does not cover all the necessary aspects of biosafety regulation, and focuses only on some aspects of transboundary movements of GE organisms, domestic laws should strive to fill the gaps.
While countries always had the sovereign right to regulate GE organisms and products at the national level, the Protocol now establishes an international legal framework as well.
France will host a meeting to prepare for the first meeting of the Parties by the end of 2000. Procedures for segregation and identification of LMO-FFPs are expected to be on the agenda.
These details have to be worked out within two years after the entry into force of the Protocol.
That meeting should also initiate the development of a liability and compensation system. It is provided that an agreement should be reached within four years after the Protocol comes into force.
The Ad Hoc Task Force on GE food set up under the WHO/FAO Codex Alimentarius (a body that sets the food safety standards for voluntary adoption by national governments) will meet in mid-March in Japan, and the General Principles body will meet in June in Paris. The precautionary Principle is expected to be central to the March meeting. The June meeting will specifically focus on the Precautionary Principle.
Developing countries should also take measures to ensure that their interests are adequately considered in the ongoing discussions at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). They should also monitor the bilateral discussions between the European Community (and its member States) and the United States relating to GE organisms and products under the Transatlantic Economic Partnership dialogue. These were started to deal with the trade impasse between the two blocs.
At a meeting with European environment ministers and the EU Commissioner for Environment during the Montreal negotiations, NGOs were told that the dialogue will take the form of a forum, conducted with transparency. Interested NGOs from the countries concerned will be able to monitor future discussions. Environment and health officials will also be involved, and any transatlantic discussion will presumably not be confined to trade officials.
It would be vital for the South - governments and NGOs - to closely follow these developments, and actively participate to ensure that biosafety and related socio-economic considerations are safeguarded in decision-making regarding GE organisms and products. - Chee Yoke Ling