Treaty on Trade in Biotech Organisms to Become Law

MONTREAL, Canada, June 13, 2003, (ENS): The small Pacific island nation of Palau today became the 50th country to ratify an international treaty that seeks to safeguard the Earth's biological diversity, triggering the treaty's entry into force. It is the first treaty that formally protects biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms.

The United Nations treaty, known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, or the Biosafety Protocol, will enter into force in 90 days, on September 11.

The protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), a wider international treaty that protects the variety of life on Earth, including the genetic differences between species and within each species.

Governments that are Parties to the CBD adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on January 29, 2000 in Cartegena, Colombia.

The Biosafety Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from potential risks that may be posed by living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology. LMOs are also known as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The protocol establishes an advance informed agreement procedure for ensuring that countries accepting shipments of LMOs are provided with prior written notification and information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to the first import of LMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment.

Those shipments will have to be identified in accompanying documentation as LMOs with specification of the organisms' identity and characteristics and with a declaration that “the movement is in conformity with the requirements of the Protocol.”

“The Cartagena Protocol recognizes that biotechnology has an immense potential for improving human welfare, but that it could also pose potential risks to biodiversity and human health,” said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, under whose auspices the Biodiversity Convention was adopted in 1992.

"This new regime promises to make the international trade in GMOs more transparent while introducing important safety measures that will meet the needs of consumers, industry and the environment for many decades to come,” Toepfer said.

The Biosafety Protocol deals primarily with GMOs that are to be intentionally introduced into the environment, such as seeds, trees or fish, and with genetically modified farm commodities, such as corn and grain used for food, animal feed or processing.

“With the science of biotechnology advancing at such a rapid pace, it is vital that developing countries and countries with economies in transition have the human resources and institutions they need for promoting biosafety,” said Hamdallah Zedan, executive secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Friends of the Earth International welcomed the start of the countdown to the entry into force of the Biosafety Protocol. It constitutes the first global environmental agreement of the new millenium, and the first international agreement which clearly says that genetically modified organisms "are different and therefore require a different treatment."

The Biosafety Protocol backs the approach of the European Union, which asserts that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) need different treatment from other organisms. The protocol stands in contradiction to policies held by some countries, such as the United States, which hold that GMOs are not different from the conventional plants and animals from which they are derived.

"The times of uncontrolled trade of GMOs are over," said Ricardo Navarro of El Salvador, chairman of Friends of the Earth International. "The Biosafety Protocol sets a new era for global regulation of GMOs. Exporters from all over the world should take adequate measures to prevent contamination of GM seed products," he said.

The international notification system under the Protocol does not replace national biosafety legislation, so Friends of the Earth warned that enacting stricter national legislation on biosafety is still needed.