Geneva/Nairobi, 15 June 1998 - The weekend before last, there was a general referendum in Switzerland on whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) should be banned in the country, either in research or for general release. The referendum, if passed, would have prohibited the release of such GMOs in the form of corn, soya, sugar beet or the use of GMOs in the production of vaccines.
The overwhelming response (by a two to one margin) to permit the development, use and release of GMOs, in a national referendum, indicates that the population believes that biotechnology research should proceed, and the products developed from that research are important. Research in many cases is based on living organisms obtained from other parts of the world. The outcome of the referendum should pave the way for furthering public awareness on the importance of the Biotechnology Industry and its dependence on biodiversity and the critical role to be played by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in this respect.
The debate leading to the referendum focused on the environmental and health issues surrounding the development and release of GMOs. Whilst the referendum result indicates that the Swiss population believes that GMOs should be used to benefit society, it is certain that this debate will continue as new and more products are developed. Indeed an editorial in The Financial Times newspaper (Tuesday June 9) states that the major issue and concern for the release of GMOs is the possibility of negative environmental effects, and identifies the need for an "international body with powerful scientific resources to assess gene technologies' environmental impact". However, possible socio-economic implications of biotechnology is an additional area of concern to developing countries.
The United Nations and the international community is addressing this very issue with the development of a Biosafety Protocol under the CBD. The Protocol is however concerned mainly with the issue of possible effects of GMOs subject to transboundary movement on biological diversity. Negotiations on the Protocol have proceeded rapidly, with the conclusion of negotiations expected in February 1999. A key purpose of the Protocol will be to ensure that countries which receive GMOs are provided with sufficient information to allow them to make informed choices about the possible environmental effects and real effects of GMOs before they are allowed into the country.
Whilst the Protocol, with a focus on transboundary movement of GMOs is under development, the international community has agreed to use the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) International Technical Guidelines on Biosafety as an interim measure and to use them to complement the Protocol after its conclusion. The Guidelines also endorsed by the Convention, are a guide to national governments on how to develop national approaches and institutions to assess the environmental and health safety of GMOs at various stages from research and development, all the way through field trials and field releases to commercialization.
The CBD, UNEP and partner institutions have initiated processes which provide the basis for major international initiatives for keeping advances in biotechnology under review while promoting their benefits for humankind.
For more information please contact:
Mr. Hamdallah Zedan
Chief, Biodiversity Unit
Mr. Calestous Juma
Convention on Biological Diversity
UNEP News Release 1998/61