GENET archive


6-Genetech §§: BIOSAFETY - Backgrounder from FoE UK

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TITLE:  UN biosafety talks: The fight for the right to say no to
SOURCE: Friends of the Earth UK, Briefing Note
DATE:   January 2000

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UN biosafety talks: The fight for the right to say no to GMOs

Key international discussions on regulating the world trade in
genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will take place in Montreal
from the 24th to 28th January (informal discussions begin on 20th
January). A "Conference of the Parties" under the United Nations
Environment Programme (UNEP) Convention on Biological Diversity,
will meet to discuss a proposed Biosafety Protocol.

This briefing explains what the Protocol is, why it is important,
how negotiations have proceeded in the past, and what is likely
to happen in Montreal.

FOE experts will be present in Montreal throughout the talks
(contact details at the end of this Briefing Note). Our London
office will also be able to offer informed comment.


The proposed Biosafety Protocol would allow national Governments
to regulate trade in GMOs. It would enable them to restrict trade
in GMOs on environmental or health grounds, and set rules on
liability and labelling. It would protect the interests both of
consumers and of primary food producers, and set limits to the
activities of multi-national biotech companies.


There has been great resistance to agreement on international
regulation of GMOs, particularly from the United States, which
expects to be a world leader in GM technology.

- at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the USA refused to become a
signatory of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)

- In Jakarta in 1995, countries which had signed the CBD agreed
to begin discussions on a Biosafety Protocol. Ideas discussed
included Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) - enabling countries to
be notified of and hence approve or refuse imports of GMOs - and
a Biotechnology Clearinghouse to allow sharing of information
between countries

- in Cartagena in 1999, talks on the Protocol broke down due to
the blocking actions of a small group of GMO and grain exporting
countries including the USA

- in Vienna in September 1999, an informal meeting of the
parties in Vienna established that political will for a protocol
still existed, and further negotiations were scheduled for
January 2000 in Montreal. A full Conference of the Parties of the
CBD is set for May 2000 in Nairobi

- in Seattle, in November 1999, an attempt was made by the
European Commission and the US Administration to include
biotechnology in the remit of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
This would have the effect of making trade in GMOs subject to
"free trade" rules, and would greatly restrict the right of
national Government to restrict GMO imports. The attempt was
blocked after protests by NGOs including Friends of the Earth,
and by EU environment ministers led by Michael Meacher.
Controversy over GMOs was an important factor in the collapse of
the WTO talks.


- should the Protocol have a "savings clause" ­ to allow
countries to bring GMO related trade disputes before the WTO? In
Cartagena, the El Salvador representative called this idea a
"protocol for biotrade"

- should GMOs for use in food, feed and processing (commodities)
be included, or should the rules only apply to the small
percentage of GMOs intended for other uses such as seed? Should
products derived from GMOs, but without GM DNA, be included ­ for
example food containing GM soya ingredients?

- how should the precautionary principle apply to GMOs? In the
draft Protocol, there is only a reference to the "precautionary
approach" in the preamble

- should socio­economic considerations be taken into account in
risk assessments ­ for example, the impacts on non-GM farmers'
livelihoods of the importation and growing of GM seed?

- should GMOs intended for "contained use" should be included ­
for example GMOS intended for use in a glasshouse or laboratory,
or even GMOs that are contained by a non-physical barrier (such
as a trait that can only be switched on by chemical

- should the Protocol address issues of liability and redress?
To date it has only been possible to agree to adopt a "process"
to resolve this issue at some time in the future.

- should the handling, transport conditions, packaging and
labelling of GMOs should be regulated?

Other issues previously debated include: illegal traffic, risk
management, whether trade with "non-parties" (such as USA) should
be blocked, minimum national standards, segregation, the use of
simplified procedures and freedom of information.


There are five main negotiating blocks

1. The Miami Group (USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay
and Chile) This group would like to exclude commodities (90% of
GMOs) from the agreement. It also wants a "savings clause" which
would protect its "rights" under other international agreements,
in particular, the WTO. Essentially the Group takes a "free
trade" position.

2. The Like Minded Group (over 100 developing countries,
including China) This group wants to ensure that the Protocol
covers all GMOs, including those for food, feed and commodities
and contained use. It wants countries which wish to export their
GMOs to get consent in advance from the country which will
receive them.

3. The European Union The EU essentially wants to resume
negotiations where they broke off in Cartagena. It states it is
determined to reach an agreement that includes GMOs for food,
feed or processing as well as for cultivation and an "adequate"
authorisation procedure. It may well decide to live with the
current compromise on the precautionary principle and liability.

It is not clear how much further will the EU compromise in order
to get an agreement; in particular on the relationship between
trade and Biosafety. A return to anything like the compromise
offered to the US at the WTO talks in Seattle (see above) would
be highly controversial.

4. The Compromise Group (Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand and
others) This group claim to be playing a bridging role: they are
not necessarily agreed on all points but prepared to broker

5. The Central and Eastern Europeans To date this group has acted
in concert with the LMG.


Key points which Friends of the Earth International (the world's
largest environment network, with groups in 64 countries) wants
to see in the Protocol include:

- The right to say no to GMOs in food. Imports of GMOs should be
subject to advanced informed agreement based on the precautionary
principle; all types of GMOs (including commodities and those for
contained use) should be subject to the Protocol; handling,
transport conditions, packaging and labelling should be subject
to regulation; and there should be a central registry of GMO and
biotechnology activities such as research and development,
laboratory and field testing, market release, intra- and inter
country transfers and disposal

- Biosafety first - trade second. The Protocol should not be
subordinate to the WTO or other trade agreements

- Polluter pays. The Protocol should include an international
regime of unlimited liability covering all damage that may arise
from GMOs, including damage to health and the environment

- A fair deal for developing countries. The Protocol should
provide for special and differential treatment for developing
countries and economies in transition, including increased
transfer of technical assistance and GMO monitoring capability.


Liana Stupples Campaigns Director, Friends of the Earth England,
Wales and Northern Ireland Tel: 0171 490 1555 Fax: 0171 490 0881

Adrian Bebb Food & Biotech Campaigner, Friends of the Earth EWNI
Tel: 0171 490 1555/0113 242 8153 e-mail:

(Both Liana and Adrian will be in Montreal)

Ian Willmore & Neil Verlander Media Unit FOE EWNI

Tel: 0171 566 1649 e-mail:

(The Media Unit in London will provide regular updates for UK

Telephone: 0207 566 1657 (w) 07712 843217 (mobile) Fax: 0207 490


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