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Governments to finalize and adopt biosafety protocol

Nairobi/MontrealL, 10 February 1999 - Some 170 governments are meeting in Cartagena, Colombia from 15 to 23 February to finalize and adopt a legally-binding agreement on reducing any potential risks resulting from the transboundary movement of living modified organisms (LMOs). Created through modern biotechnology techniques, LMOs promise enormous benefits for agriculture, medicine, and other fields. At the same time, many people are concerned about the possible risks to biological diversity and human health of introducing LMOs into the environment.

"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," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, the United Nations Environment Programme. UNEP provides the Montreal-based secretariat for the Convention on Biological Diversity, under which the biosafety protocol talks are taking place.

The delegates face an ambitious agenda in Cartagena, as many core issues remain unresolved. One key point is whether the protocol will address only LMOs themselves or also processed products containing dead modified organisms or non-living LMO components, such as certain vaccines, drugs, processed foods, and food additives. Also on the agenda is how to handle liability, a particularly difficult issue in the international context.

"I am convinced that the world community - including the industry and trade sector - will benefit greatly in the long term from working together on biosafety within the framework of a legal instrument," said Veit Koester of Denmark, chairman of the talks. "Already the negotiating process itself has inspired many developing countries for the first time to start establishing their own domestic legal regimes on biosafety."

The biosafety talks reflect growing public concerns about the potential risks posed by living modified organisms. 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.

Another concern is that many developing countries lack the technical, financial, and institutional means to address biosafety. They need greater capacity for assessing and managing risks, establishing adequate information systems, and developing expert human resources in biotechnology.

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. Traditional methods such as breeding selection and cross-fertilization are low-tech and slower paced.

Modern methods such as genetic engineering techniques and recombinant DNA technology, on the other hand, can introduce a greater diversity of genes into organisms almost instantly. They also make it possible for the first time to transfer genes from one type of organism to another - for example, to insert genes from a bacterium into a tomato to create a transgenic plant.

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. This has led to remarkable advances in agriculture, medicine, and other fields. The products of biotechnology can be used to improve the resistance of plants to pests and environmental pressures and to increase their commercial value. Other results include new medical treatments and vaccines and new industrial products.

Modern biotechnology has great potential for human well-being if developed and used with adequate safety measures for the environment and human health. This is a very new field, however, and much about the interaction of LMOs with various ecosystems is not yet known. It is therefore vital that the introduction of genetically modified organisms does not proceed faster than advances in scientific understanding.

Some of the concerns about the new technologies include unintended changes in the competitiveness, virulence, or other characteristics of the target species; the possibility of adverse impacts on non-target species and ecosystems; the potential for weediness in genetically modified crops (i.e. a plant becomes too resistant and invasive, perhaps by transferring its genes to wild relatives); and the stability of inserted genes (i.e. the possibilities that a gene will lose its effectiveness or will be re-transferred to another host).

The protocol is to be negotiated and finalized during the week of 14 - 19 February by the sixth session of the Open-ended Ad hoc Working Group on Biosafety (BSWG-6). The BSWG is a subsidiary body of the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the Convention's ultimate authority. A Special Session of the COP is to adopt the protocol on 22 - 23 February. The protocol will then be opened for signature at United Nations headquarters in New York and will enter into force after an agreed number of countries have completed the next step of ratifying it.

The Convention on Biological Diversity was signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and now has 174 Parties. Its objectives 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.

Note to journalists: For more information about accreditation and telephone interviews before and during the meeting, please contact
Michael Williams in
Geneva at (41-22) 917 8242/244/111, fax (41-22) 797 3464,
(Please note that Michael Williams can be reached on this email address during the meeting).

Official documents are available via at

UNEP News Release 1999/15

Wednesday 10 Feb 1999
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