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Global treaty adopted on genetically modified organisms

Nairobi/Montral, 31 January 2000 - After five years of talks, ministers and senior officials from over 130 governments have finalized a legally binding agreement for protecting the environment from risks posed by the transboundary transport of living modified organisms (LMOs) created by modern biotechnology.

Under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, (agreed to in Montreal on Saturday), governments will signal whether or not they are willing to accept imports of agricultural commodities that include LMOs by communicating their decision to the world community via an Internet-based Biosafety Clearing House. In addition, shipments of these commodities that may contain LMOs are to be clearly labeled.

Stricter Advanced Informed Agreement procedures will apply to seeds, live fish, and other LMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment. In these cases, the exporter must provide detailed information to each importing country in advance of the first shipment, and the importer must then authorize the shipment. The aim is to ensure that recipient countries have both the opportunity and the capacity to assess risks involving the products of modern biotechnology.

"The Biosafety Protocol is the first new environmental treaty of the 21st century, a century that will be dramatically shaped by biotechnology," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which administers the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. "Last Saturday's agreement in Montreal empowers the international community to build an effective regime for ensuring that the planet's biological diversity will be able to coexist with this powerful technology," he said.

One of the most contentious issues that negotiators had to resolve involved the relationship between the Protocol and other international agreements, notably those under the World Trade Organization. While environmental agreements are premised on the precautionary principle (which states that potentially dangerous activities can be restricted or prohibited even before they can be scientifically proven to cause serious damage), decisions under trade law require "sufficient scientific evidence". Under the agreement reached in Montreal, the Protocol and the WTO are to be mutually supportive; at the same time, the Protocol is not to affect the rights and obligations of governments under any existing international agreements.

The meeting in Montreal was attended by more than 700 delegates from governments as well as from intergovernmental and non- governmental organizations. Over 40 ministers attended during the final two days. The agreed text of the Biosafety Protocol will be opened for signature at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi from 15 - 26 May, on the occasion of the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 5). The Protocol will then enter into force for its members after 50 countries have ratified it.

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 (although pharmaceuticals are not covered by this agreement).

Saturday's success marks the end of a lengthy negotiating process that started in 1996. The biosafety talks had to be suspended in February 1999, in Cartagena, Colombia, when officials were unable to finalize the text of a protocol. The one-week meeting in Montreal is officially called the Resumed First Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The biosafety agreement reflects 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.
The protocol will be posted at www.biodiv.org

In Nairobi, contact:
Tore J. Brevik,
UNEP Spokesman, on
tel: +254- 2-623292
or
Robert Bisset,
Office of the Spokesman, on
tel: 623084, fax: 623692,
email: robert.bisset@unep.org

News Release 2000/7

Monday 31 Jan 2000
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