Success for UN biosafety protocol talks

EU welcomes "historic" deal regulating international trade in GM organisms, commodities

Some 130 countries agreed the text of UN rules governing trade in live genetically modified organisms (GMOs) early on Saturday morning, following a week of talks in Montreal, Canada. The deal to create the Cartagena biosafety protocol to the 1992 UN convention on biodiversity has been greeted by the EU and by European environmental groups as a major victory.

The unlikely success in overcoming strong differences between grain exporting and importing nations caught many participants by surprise. The previous attempt to agree the protocol broke down in acrimony (ENDS Daily 24 February 1999) and December's world trade talks in Seattle collapsed amid even more controversial scenes (ENDS Daily 6 December 1999).

EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström, who attended the talks in Montreal along with many European environment ministers, described the agreement as a "historic moment" and an "enormous step forward". The new international legal framework would "ease public concern and create predictability for industry," she said.

The protocol, which must be ratified by 50 parties to the biodiversity convention to enter into force, creates a system of prior informed consent for trade in GMOs to be released to the environment, dubbed an advanced informed agreement (AIA) procedure.

Against stiff opposition from the "Miami group" of grain exporting nations - the USA, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Chile and Uruguay - the protocol also includes softer controls on trade in GM crops for use in food or feed. Parties will have to notify all other parties when they approve new GM crops for domestic use. When exporting commodities, they will have to label them as "may contain" GMOs. This will not automatically require exporters to segregate GM crops, but will increase political pressure for it to happen.

In a key victory for EU negotiators, the precautionary principle is mentioned both in the protocol's preamble and also in the decision making procedures regulating trade in GM commodities and GMOs to be released in the environment. Parties will be entitled to invoke the principle if they wish to restrict imports of GMOs.

Other elements make it clear that there will be limits on parties' rights to ban GMO imports at will. In particular, the text, neither subordinates the protocol to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules, nor states that it should take preference. Where a party restricts GMO imports, an exporter will still be entitled to take the issue to the WTO's dispute settlement panel if it feels the restrictions are not scientifically justified.

Rules governing trade with non-parties to the protocol - which are certain to include the USA since it has not ratified the parent biodiversity convention - are also unclear. The text requires trade between parties and non-parties to be "consistent with the objectives" of the protocol, but does not require the procedures set in place for trade between parties.

Follow Up:
Convention on Biological Diversity and official press release. Daily reports on the talks from Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

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