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Governments postpone adoption of biosafety treaty

Cartagena/Nairobi, 24 February 1999 - Officials from 138 governments suspended talks in Cartagena, Columbia, today when they were unable to finalize the text of a legally binding protocol on reducing risks related to the transboundary movement of living modified organisms (LMOs).

"Biotechnology can contribute enormously to human well-being, but it poses potential risks," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "For this reason, the global community will continue to work on establishing a legally binding biosafety regime."

"A great deal of progress on this regime has been made here in Cartagena, including on capacity-building in developing countries and on the exchange of information through a Biosafety Clearing House," Toepfer continued. "But governments still need more time to discuss their remaining differences. I am hopeful that they will be able to adopt the protocol when the meeting is resumed at a later date," he said.

In Cartagena, governments discussed the risks that biotechnology may pose for biological diversity and human health, its socio-economic implications for developing countries, and the relevance to biosafety of the precautionary approach.

The international community is pursuing a biosafety protocol to ensure that living modified organisms are only transported into countries with their "advanced informed agreement". Exporters would have to make sure that recipient countries had the opportunity and capacity to assess risks involving the creations of modern biotechnology.

The talks have stalled over a number of issues. In particular, governments disagree over the proposed scope of the treaty's regulatory powers. Some want to restrict the definition of LMO to organisms intended for introduction into the environment. Others argue for a broader definition that would include agricultural commodities and products of LMOs.

Another contentious issue is liability: if LMOs enter the environment and cause damage, who pays? Also unresolved is how to minimize the potential socio-economic impacts, such as the competitive decline of traditional crops faced with LMO imports. Yet another unresolved question relates to the protocol's relationship to the World Trade Organization and its various subsidiary agreements.

When eventually adopted, the biosafety agreement is to form a protocol under the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity. The protocol has been negotiated by the Open-ended Ad hoc Working Group on Biosafety, which held its first meeting in 1996 and its sixth and final one from 14-22 February here in Cartagena.

The Working Group concluded its work yesterday and passed the unfinished text to the Extraordinary Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP), which is the Convention's ultimate authority. The Session, chaired by Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr, will resume later and be responsible for finalizing and adopting the protocol text.

LMOs include various food crops that have been genetically modified for greater productivity or nutritional value, or for resistance to pests or diseases. Common examples include tomatoes, grains, cassava, corn, and soybeans. Seeds for growing crops are particularly important because they are used intentionally to propogate or reproduce LMOs in the environment. Together, these agricultural LMOs form the basis of a multi-billion-dollar global industry. Pharmaceuticals derived using LMOs form the basis of an even larger industry.

The biosafety talks reflect growing public concerns about the potential risks of biotechnology. 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.


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Official documents are available via

UNEP News Release 1999/17

Tuesday 23 Feb 1999
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