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- Date: Wed, 26 Aug 1998 07:13:27 -0700 (PDT)
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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
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
Inadequate protection for human health, the environment and
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
* There must be an unambiguous right for countries to reject
imports, exports and movement across their territories of GMOs and
* 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
* 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