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biosafety (1/3)

Genetic Engineering
                     Briefing on the Biosafety Protocol
     This introductory paper on the Biosafety Protocol sets out
     information on the risks posed by the releases and transboundary
     movements of GMOs, why it is necessary for parties to the Protocol
     to have the right to refuse imports, transit and exports of GMOs,
     and the need for a system of liability and compensation to be
     included in the Protocol.
     Origin and goals
     In 1995, the international community decided to establish
     world-wide regulations to control the proliferation of genetically
     modified organisms as a means to minimise the hazards to the
     planet's natural flora and fauna under the Rio Convention on
     Biological Diversity.
     Governments from around the world are now in the process of
     negotiating international rules to regulate the transboundary
     movements of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These rules
     will be contained in a protocol to the Convention on Biological
     Diversity, presently known as "the Biosafety Protocol".
     The purpose of the Biosafety Protocol is to ensure that there are
     clear, binding rules to prevent biohazards. However, some countries
     appear to want to turn the Protocol instead into a genetic hazard
     proliferation treaty.
     Inadequate protection for human health, the environment and
     national sovereignty
     It is still unclear, for example, whether countries have rights to
     refuse to accept gmos into and across their territories. Several
     OECD countries, such the US, Switzerland and some EU countries
     appear to act as spokespeople for the biotechnology industry by
     attempting to ensure that the industry cannot be liable for any
     damage caused from their risky genetech products, and by proposing
     weak environmental and health standards to assess the risks posed
     by GMOs. If they have their way, countries will not be able to ban
     GMOs and GMO products to prevent harm to biological diversity and
     human health. Their approach is for countries to have to wait until
     the harm has occurred before any banning can be considered -
     ignoring the evidence that once in the environment, GMOs may
     multiply, spread and cause continuous and irreversible damage.
     The world's Environment Ministers will decide at the Fourth
     Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity,
     4-15 May, when the negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol must be
     concluded. Ministers will also be asked to consider how to promote
     the so-called "benefit-sharing" of biotechnology, without being
     presented a thorough assessment of the high risks posed for
     biological diversity in the proliferation of the releases of GMO
     into the environment.
     In the time leading up to the final negotiations, there is likely
     to be intense pressure on countries by multinational biotechnology
     companies who want as few rules as possible so that they are
     unhindered in carrying out research and development,
     commercialisation, marketing and transportation of their GMOs.
     Greenpeace is calling on the world's governments to produce a
     strong, internationally binding agreement to protect biodiversity
     and human health from the risks of releasing GMOs into the
     Risks to biological diversity from GMOs 
     What is known about GMOs is that they are a risky business. Once
     released into the environment, GMOs may survive, multiply and
     spread, causing damage to biodiversity which is continuous and
     irreversible. Government and independent scientists are now
     becoming increasingly aware of the adverse impacts on ecosystems
     and human health from releasing GMOs into the environment.
     Scientific findings include:
     * unpredictable damage to biodiversity from releases of gmos.
       Biotechnology companies rarely undertake or record their
       assessments of the medium and long term impacts of releasing their
       GMOs or GMO products into the environment. Even for short term
       impacts, nasty surprises have come to light about the unpredicted
       effects from genetically engineered bacteria (Psuedomomas putida
       was so toxic that it destroyed important beneficial fungi;
       Klebisiella produced dramatic changes in the soil food web and
       inhibited plant growth) and genetically engineered crops with an
       in-built insecticide (harmful to non-targeted species, possibly
       throughout the food chain).
     * unprecedented threats to the food chain. A recently published
       study in the journal, Environmental Entomology, has revealed that
       Novartis' transgenic maize may poison beneficial predatory species
       reared on transgenic maize-fed herbivores such as the European
       corn borer (Ostrinia nubilialis Huebner) and the bollworm
       (Spodoptera littoralis Boisduval). Two out of three beneficial
       predator insect larvae (green lacewing larvae) died when fed with
       European corn borer which had been fed on the Novartis transgenic
       maize containing Bt toxin. This finding is extremely worrying as
       it suggests that the Bt toxin produced by genetically engineered
       plants can be passed on in the food chain - an effect which has
       never been observed with the Bt toxin in its natural form.
     * threats to biodiversity through transfer of genetic material
       between different species in the natural environment. Scientists
       have found that gene transfer from plants to micro-organisms can
       occur, affecting the very integrity of biological diversity.
       Experiments have shown that the fungus Aspergillus niger took on
       the antibiotic resistance gene contained in genetically engineered
       oilseed rape, black mustard thorn-apple and sweet peas which were
       grown together with the fungus or their leaves were added to the
     * threats to biodiversity through outcrossing and genetic pollution.
       The large scale growing of genetically engineered crops may place
       biological diversity at risk as a result of gene flow from gmo
       crops to their wild relatives. Experiments carried out on
       genetically engineered oilseed rape, radishes and potatoes showed
       gene flow from the gmo crop to their wild relatives across fairly
       long distances. The hybridisation of new genetically altered crop
       varieties with their wild relatives is also likely to lead to the
       loss or permanent alteration of wild species.
     * threats to environmentally sustainable farming practices though
       development of insecticide resistant crops. There is already
       overwhelming scientific data showing that resistance to one of the
       world's most important natural insecticides, Bacillus
       thuringiensis (Bt), will develop if crops are genetically
       engineered to contain a Bt-resistant genes. Sustainable
       agricultural methods use natural Bt sprays to control insects.
       Many scientific studies have shown that the development and use of
       Bt-resistant crops will lead to insects developing resistance to
     * threats to animals, humans and soil organisms from transfers of
       antibiotic resistance genes. Transgenic crops containing
       antibiotic resistance genes pose too great a threat to human and
       animal health and the environment as the further spread of these
       resistance genes will confer widespread resistance against a great
       number of commonly used antibiotics for human and animal therapy.
     The above is only the briefest of summaries of the risks to the
     environment. Full knowledge of the short, medium, and long term
     impacts of gmos on biological diversity does not exist.
     Given the risks already known about releasing gmos into the
     environment, let alone what is not yet known about the long-term
     negative environmental impacts, Greenpeace considers that the basis
     for any decisions on evaluating risks to biological diversity must
     be the precautionary principle. Greenpeace considers that GMOs
     which may pose threats of biological pollution should be banned in
     accordance with the precautionary principle.
     The right to say "no" to GMOs 
     The biotechnology industry intends to force its genetically
     modified organisms to be released on to the world market. However,
     consumers and farmers are saying that they do not want genetically
     modified food. And now countries are beginning to listen to the
     increasing number of serious concerns from scientists and the
     public about the risks to the environment and human health posed by
     the release of GMOs into ecosystems and the food chain.
     Indeed, several European countries have already taken positions to
     reject, restrict or place a moratorium on the releases of certain
     GMOs in their territories. France has introduced a moratorium for
     further commercial planting of gmos and stated that it will not
     authorise either the cultivation or marketing of plants containing
     antibiotic resistance genes. Austria and Luxembourg have banned the
     import and marketing of Novartis' transgenic maize since early
     1997. Norway has also banned 4 transgenic crops containing
     antibiotic resistance genes, including Novartis' maize, and 2
     transgenic vaccines. Several EU countries have also recently
     registered their opposition to EU authorisation for import and
     cultivation of Monsanto's genetically engineered Bt maize, AgrEvo's
     genetically engineered herbicide tolerant maize and AgrEvo's
     genetically engineered herbicide tolerant and antibiotic resistant
     oil seed rape. These countries they will no doubt consider whether
     to apply national bans on these GMOs.
     In Switzerland, the headquarters of Novartis, a public referendum
     will be held to decide whether environmental releases of gmos
     should be prohibited by law.
     Given the risks to biodiversity posed by genetic pollution from the
     release of GMOs into the environment, it is likely that more
     countries in other regions will wish to take similar positions.
     Greenpeace considers that it is essential for the Biosafety
     Protocol to guarantee that all countries have unambiguous rights to
     reject imports, exports and any movements of GMOs across their
     However, the biotechnology industry, through its lobbying of
     several OECD countries, appears to be pushing aggressively for an
     extremely weak protocol so that countries can no longer use their
     sovereign rights to decide what enters and crosses their
     territories when it comes to GMOs.
     Illegal traffic - already happening. Recently genetically
     engineered maize going from the US entered the EU via Dutch ports.
     However, this gmo was not authorised in the EU. The European
     Commission promptly wrote to the Dutch and German governments who
     had allowed the gmo maize to enter their territories threatening
     court action if they allowed this to happen. The transporters also
     tried to send the US gmo maize to Switzerland, but the Swiss
     authorities refused to allow it to enter their territory as it was
     also not authorised there. But, why did the US allow this maize to
     be sent when the biotech companies knew, or ought to have checked,
     that the gmo was not authorised?
     This case highlights the need for clear and strong rules in the
     Biosafety Protocol to deter countries from exporting GMOs and GMO
     products which have not been authorised or accepted by the
     countries of import or transit.
     In addition, the case also illustrates the real need for mandatory
     requirements of segregation of GMOs from normal organisms to ensure
     traceability and allow the fast and comprehensive withdrawal of a
     GMO or GMO product in this type of case of illegal traffic, or if
     there were an accident. Segregation based on a system of
     certification is technically feasible and would be the basis for an
     effective labelling system.
     Greenpeace believes that exporting countries must take
     responsibility to ensure that no GMO leaves their territories
     without explicit prior consent from importing countries, and
     importing countries must have the right to explicitly refuse
     imports of GMOs. In addition, Greenpeace considers that countries
     should make the illegal traffic of GMOs a criminal offence under
     their national law.
     Who takes responsibility if something goes wrong? 
     Genetic engineering is a high-risk activity. And, there is still a
     great deal unknown about the medium and long-term negative impacts
     to biological diversity. However, to date, OECD countries at the
     Biosafety negotiations refuse to accept the inclusion in the
     Biosafety Protocol of guiding principles to allocate responsibility
     and compensation for the real costs associated with activities
     involving GMOs and GMO products.
     Things can go wrong with GMOs. This can be as a result of human
     error such as Monsanto's genetically engineered sugarbeet sent to a
     Dutch refiner even though it only had approval for experimental
     field trial. About 10,000 tons of processed sugar was contaminated
     by the gmo sugarbeet. Or things can wrong with gmos which were
     either not considered or anticipated by the biotech company or
     exporting country, such as the serious impacts of antibiotic
     resistance marker genes on animals, humans and soil organisms.
     Greenpeace believes that the release and use of gmos creates
     unnecessary and high risks for the environment for which full
     responsibility must be taken. Rules to allocate liability and
     compensation in the event of damage created by activities under the
     Biosafety Protocol would provide incentives for safe and
     environmentally responsible actions and would be consistent with
     the current trend of applying the "polluter pays" principle.
     Greenpeace's specific demands for a Biosafety Protocol 
     * The Biosafety Protocol must contain strong, legally binding rules
       to regulate the entire life cycle (i.e. research, development,
       handling, transport, use, disposal) of GMOs and GMO products.
     * The precautionary principle must be the general objective for the
       Biosafety Protocol.
     * There must be an unambiguous right for countries to reject
       imports, exports and movement across their territories of GMOs and
       GMO products.
     * All exporting states should have the responsibility to refuse GMOs
       and GMO products to leave their territories unless they have
       received written authorisation from importing and transit
     * All exporting countries should establish systems of segregation
       and certification to ensure traceability, transparency and
       consumer choice.
     * International rules establishing civil and state liability and
       compensation need to be included in the Biosafety Protocol to deal
       with harm (e.g. to ecosystems and/or human health) caused by GMOs.
     * Environmental impact assessments and assessments of the agronomic
       and social impacts on local and indigenous communities need to be
       carried out as part of the decision-making for all movements of
       GMOs and GMO products.
     * There should be a moratorium on international trade in GMOs and
       GMO products until the Biosafety Protocol enters into force.
     * The Biosafety Protocol should ban the exports and imports to and
       from non-parties to the Protocol in order to encourage all
       governments to sign the Protocol.
     For further information, please contact Louise Gale, Greenpeace
     May 1998