Press releases

Friday 14 Jan 2000

Governments meet to conclude biosafety treaty

Montreal/Nairobi, 4 January 2000 - The worlds governments are resuming talks here from 24 - 28 January in an effort to finalize and adopt a legally-binding agreement on reducing any potential risks resulting from the transboundary movement of living modified organisms (LMOs). Ministers are expected to participate during the final two days.

"The ability of modern biotechnology to contribute to human well-being in the 21st century will be boosted dramatically if the international community takes action now to create credible and effective safeguards for the environment," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which administers the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, under which the talks are talking place.

"Reducing unnecessary and potentially catastrophic risks is in the best interest of everyone - developed and developing countries, consumers and industry, and all those who care deeply about our natural environment."

The resumed talks follow a suspension of the First Session of the Extraordinary Conference of the Parties of the Convention in February 1999 in Cartagena, Colombia, when officials were unable to finalize the text of a Biosafety Protocol in the time available due to a number of outstanding differences.

Since then, Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr Maldonado, in his capacity as President of the Extraordinary Session, has held two rounds of open-ended informal consultations, the first in Montreal in July, the second in Vienna in September. At these meetings, representatives of all the negotiating groups that emerged from the Cartagena meeting expressed their commitment to concluding a Biosafety Protocol and confirmed that the political will to achieve this does exist.

The negotiating groups are the Miami Group (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, and the US), the European Union, the Central and Eastern European Countries, the Compromise Group, and the Like-Minded Group of Countries (which includes most of the developing countries).

The talks have stalled over a number of issues. In particular, governments have disagreed over the proposed scope of the treaty´s regulatory powers. Some have wanted to restrict the scope of the Protocol to LMOs intended for introduction into the environment, such as seeds. Others have argued for a broader scope that would include LMOs that are agricultural commodities or that are used for food, feed, or processing. At the Vienna informal consultations there was a general agreement that the scope should be broad. Negotiators also advanced on a conceptual framework for designing the practical procedures that would apply to these commodities.

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. Still another unresolved question relates to the Protocol?s relationship to other international agreements, particularly those under the World Trade Organization.

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 propagate 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, institutional, and human resources to address biosafety. They need greater capacity for assessing and managing risks, establishing adequate information systems, and developing expert human resources in biotechnology.

Note to journalists:
For further information, contact Michael Williams (press officer) at UNEP's Information Unit for Conventions in Geneva at tel.(+41-22) 917- 8242, fax (+41-22) 797-3464, e-mail michael.williams@unep.ch,
or
Monique Chiasson (press assistant) at the Convention secretariat in Montreal at tel. +1-514-287-7019/288-2220, fax +1-514-288-6588, e-mail Monique.Chiasson@biodiv.org.

Meeting documents and accreditation information are posted at www.biodiv.org and www.unep.ch/conventions/

UNEP News Release 2000/1

 

PRESS BACKGROUNDER

Biotechnology and the Biosafety Protocol

From mapping the human genome to cloning sheep, biologists have been at the forefront of scientific progress over the past two decades. While advances in biotechnology promise extraordinary improvements in human well-being, they can also raise serious ethical, environmental, and health concerns. Modern biotechnology has great potential for human well-being if developed and used with adequate safety measures for the environment and human health. The relatively new concept of ?biosafety? describes efforts to ensure that humanity receives the benefits ? but avoids the risks ? resulting from modern biotechnology. The first intergovernmental talks on a legally binding biosafety agreement are taking place under the Convention on Biological Diversity.

What is biotechnology? For millennia, humans have artificially altered the genetic makeup of plants and animals through breeding selection and cross-fertilization. Since the early 1970s, however, modern biotechnology has enabled scientists to transfer genetic material (DNA ? the biochemical instructions governing the development of cells and organisms) through biochemical means and to radically alter the intricate genetic structure of individual living cells. They can now introduce a great diversity of genes into plants, animals, and micro-organisms almost instantly. For the first time, humanity has the power 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. Modern biotechnology includes recombinant DNA (rDNA) techniques (also called genetic engineering) as well as the use of monoclonal antibodies and new cell- and tissue-culture methods.

What are Living Modified Organisms (LMOs)? LMOs include a variety of food crops that have been genetically modified for greater productivity or for resistance to pests or diseases. Common examples include tomatoes, grains, cassava (a starchy root grown in Sub-Saharan Africa and other tropical areas), corn, and soybeans. Seeds for growing new crops are particularly important because they are used intentionally to propagate LMOs.

What are LMO products? LMOs form the basis of a range of products and agricultural commodities. Citing the precautionary principle, some experts cite the risk that pieces of DNA remaining in these non-living products could possibly replicate under certain conditions; others consider this to be extremely unlikely. Processed products containing dead modified organisms or non- living LMO components include certain vaccines; drugs; food additives; and many processed, canned, and preserved foods. Depending on the precise definition, they can also include corn and soybean derivatives used in many foods and nonfoods, cornstarch used for cardboard and adhesives, fuel ethanol for gasoline, vitamins, vaccines and pharmaceuticals, and yeast-based foods such as beer and bread.

What are the potential benefits of biotechnology? Genetic engineering promises remarkable advances in medicine, agriculture, and other fields. It can alter the growth characteristics of micro-organisms, insects, fish, and animals or make them produce new substances. It can improve the resistance of plants to pests and environmental pressures and increase their commercial value. It can create food crops with increased yields, raising the protein generated from limited land and resources. It can also make plants more resistant to disease and insects. Other benefits include new medical treatments and vaccines, new industrial products, and improved fibres and fuels.

What are the potential risks? Biotechnology is a very new field, and much about the interaction of LMOs with various ecosystems is not yet known. The introduction of genetically modified organisms should 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 (such as beneficial insects) and ecosystems; the potential for weediness in genetically modified crops (a plant becomes too resistant and invasive, perhaps by transferring its genes to wild relatives); and the stability of inserted genes (the possibilities that a gene will lose its effectiveness or will be re-transferred to another host). A specific example that has recently been cited involves the insertion of protease inhibitor genes (PIs) into plants; these small proteins interfere with enzymes in the intestinal tracts of insects and can disrupt development and destroy larvae in both pests and beneficial insects. Similarly, Bt-toxins engineered into a wide range of transgenic plants may build up in the soil and harm pollinators and other beneficial insects.

What is biosafety? Biosafety is a new term used to describe efforts to reduce and eliminate the potential risks resulting from biotechnology and its products. It is based on the precautionary principle, which states that the lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as an excuse to postpone action when there is a threat of serious or irreversible damage. While developed countries that are at the center of the global biotechnology industry have established domestic biosafety regimes, many developing countries are only now starting to establish their own national systems.

Why is biotechnology also a trade issue? The commercialization of biotechnology has spawned multi-billion- dollar industries for foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals that continue to grow at a dramatic pace. Under World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations, the regulation of trade must be based on ?sound scientific knowledge?. Under environmental regimes, the agreed standard of proof is the precautionary principle. The WTO also does not accept socio-economic concerns, such as the risk that exports of genetically engineered crops may replace traditional ones and undermine local cultures and traditions in importing countries. The subsidiary agreements of the WTO, including the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (SPS), Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement (TBT), and the Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property (TRIPs), also contain specific provisions that apply to the biosafety issue.

Why is an international Biosafety agreement needed? The objectives of the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity 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 biosafety talks reflect growing public concern about the potential risks posed by living modified organisms. A particular 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. While many countries with modern biotechnology industries do have domestic legislation, there are no binding international agreements covering LMOs that cross national borders because of trade or accidental releases. An international regime is needed now while the biotechnology industry is still young and major errors have not yet been committed.

Friday 14 Jan 2000
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