GENET archive


6-Genetech §§: BIOSAFETY - Greenpeace on liability

-------------------------- GENET-news ---------------------------

TITLE:  The liability issue in the biosafety protocol
SOURCE: Greenepace International
        Biosafety Protocol Press Advisory
DATE:   January 2000

----------------- archive: ------------------

The liability issue in the biosafety protocol 

Who pays if something goes wrong with a genetically modified
organism (GMO)?

If a GMO harms the environment or a farmer's livelihood, or human
health, who should pay compensation and be responsible for the
legal consequences? 

The debate on liability in the Biosafety Protocol has centred on
the issue of whether the Protocol should even include clauses on
liability and compensation. It is also unclear what these clauses
should cover and who is liable ­ the biotechnology company which
developed the GMO, the exporting country, the importing country,
the farmer who planted the GMO, all of them or none of them? 

Many countries from Africa, Latin America and Asia are extremely
concerned at the possible risks of GMOs and the economic
consequences of mistakes, which cannot be rectified. Following
disasters such as the chemical explosion in Bhopal, India, they
know that liability rules need to be established from the outset.
European Union countries recently endorsed the need for rules on
liability for GMOs (See declarations made by countries at the
24th June 1999 EU Environment Council). 

The insurance industry is also concerned about the huge risks
involved and the scope of possible liability claims from the
releases of GMOs. According to the reinsurance company Swiss Re,
the risks of genetic engineering cannot be covered under
traditional insurance policies.

Mistakes already made

Given the lack of scientific knowledge about the future risks of
GMOs, the developing world is right to be worried. There is a
possibility that releasing GMOs into the environment will result
in a loss of and/or irreversible changes to biodiversity. There
is also the need to deal with possible threats to human health,
which include the threat of increases in the spread of antibiotic

GMOs are living organisms. They can multiply, transfer their
genes and spread. They will not respect field borders or national
boundaries. There is scientific evidence that gene flow is
possible or even inevitable. 

Farmers growing GE-free crops risk losing income when their
traditional crops are contaminated by gene flow from genetically
modified crops. In October 1998, Greenpeace published evidence
that Novartis' GE maize had cross-pollinated an adjacent field of
conventionally grown maize in the south-west region of Baden
Württemberg in Germany. At the same time the biggest farming co
operative in the region, Raiffeisen-Zentralgenossenschaft
informed the farmers that it would refuse to buy GE maize. The
co-operative requested GE-free guarantees from all the farmers,
and threatened to sue any farmer trying to sell them GE-maize.
Organic farmers are also likely to be affected by genetic
contamination. Contamination of an organic crop could result in
the farmer losing his organic status and in this way his

What can liability rules cover? 

The types of damage that need to be considered under a liability
regime include: loss of life or personal injury; loss of, or
damage to property; loss of profit and adverse effects to both
the owned and the common environment. 

Industry claims that liability should only apply for defective
products and this should be dealt with under national rather than
international laws. This has been rejected by the developing
world on the whole who consider that international rules are
necessary to cover harm to biodiversity, human health and socio
economic impacts from activities specifically involving GMOs and
GE products. 

The present negotiating text of the Protocol envisages the
possibility of rules to cover liability and redress for harm from
the transboundary movements of GMOs. However there are two major
faults with the text. The first one is that it is likely that
harm to the environment and human health will arise from a whole
range of other activities involving GMOs than just transboundary
movements. These activities include growing and consumption of
GMOs.  Secondly, negotiators have left the text unclear as to
whether liability rules need to be agreed within four years from
the time the Protocol is ratified or whether the process to set
up rules on liability needs to start within four years.

Who should be liable? 

The main discussions have focussed on whether, and to what
extent, responsibility should lie with the exporting country or
importing country. Many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin
America, such as India, Colombia and Ethiopia expect that the
country which exports the GMOs should take responsibility for any
harm. They also maintain that the Protocol should allocate
responsibility to the companies developing, producing and
exporting the GMOs.

Greenpeace demands: 
- The Biosafety Protocol should contain comprehensive rules
  setting out an international liability regime. 
- These rules must cover all damage resulting from GMOs arising
  due to export or import, development, handling or use of GMOs
  and products derived from GMOs. 
- Damage must at least cover loss of life, personal injury, and
  adverse effects to both private property and the common
  environment. It must also cover all costs of restoring damage
  to the environment, loss of, or damage to, property, and loss
  of profit. 
- Exporting countries and companies must be liable for the
  products they export. 
- There should be no exemptions or financial ceilings for
  liability for activities involving GMOs.

Greenpeace Genetic Engineering Campaign in Biosafety meeting:
Mika Railo, Greenpeace International Press Officer
mobile: +31.6.212 969 08

Johanne Fillion, Greenpeace Canada Press Officer
mobile: + (1 514) 898 3587

Greenpeace International Press Desk
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
+31.20.5249 515


|                   GENET                     |
| European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering |
|                                             |
|             Hartmut MEYER (Mr)              |
|          Reinhaeuser Landstr. 51            |
|            D - 37083 Goettingen             |
|                 Germany                     |
|                                             |
| phone: +49-551-7700027                      |
| fax:   +49-551-7701672                      |
| email:                    |