Global biosafety talks enter final round

Protocol negotiations "endangered" by "extreme positions," Bjerregaard warns

Negotiations to finalise an international biosafety protocol which began in Columbia yesterday are being "endangered" by "extreme positions" being taken by producers of genetically-modified crops and products on the one hand and developing countries on the other, the European Commission has warned. In a statement released last week, EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard urged all governments to negotiate with "a willingness to come to an agreement".

The biosafety protocol is intended to set legally binding international rules to govern the transfer, handling and use of live genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Environment ministers from more than 170 countries will meet from 14-23 February in Cartagena, Colombia, to finalise the text. Observers say that crucial differences of opinion remain to be overcome.

According to the Commission, countries that produce GM crops are pushing for a protocol "without any environmental credibility". Notable among these is the USA, the world's largest GM-crop producer, which has not signed the biodiversity convention. GM crop producers want to place the burden of regulation of GMOs, as set out by the protocol, onto importing countries rather than exporters. The Commission claims this "unfair balance of obligations" is aimed only at liberalising GMO trade.

The Commission also urges developing countries not to pursue "less realistic and difficult" aims. Developing countries are concerned that importing GM crops could threaten traditional farming methods and endanger biodiversity. According to one observer, many African and Asian countries are determined not to sign the protocol unless their demands for a strict liability mechanism and the right to refuse to import GMOs is granted.

Another key unresolved issue is whether the protocol will cover only live GMOs or also GMO products such as vaccines, drugs, processed foods and food additives. According to the Commission, GM crop producers want the protocol to exclude agricultural commodities, such as GM soya beans, which the Commission claims would rule out 99% of the GMOs potentially included.

Another point still needing clarification is how to deal with segregation and labelling of GM crops and products. Governments also have to decide how much information a company should be required to release concerning a GM-product, and how much the precautionary principle should be taken into account.

European NGOs are pushing the EU to take a strong stance on environmental issues at the talks, and are concerned about the heavy pressure being put on developing countries (ENDS Daily 13 January). They are particularly unhappy about a proposal put forward by the US, Australia, Argentina and New Zealand, to exclude genetically engineered grains from the protocol. According to the Commission, the EU will push for a protocol which "balances environmental and trade concerns".

Follow Up:
European Commission, tel: +32 2 295 1111; Biodiversity convention secretariat, tel: +1 514 288 2220. References: Cartagena meeting documents

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