Intervenor: Vol 25. No 1 January - March 2000

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety

In Montreal, in the early morning hours of January 29 of this year, 160 countries completed negotiations for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, to govern the international movement of genetically modified living organisms that may effect biodiversity. The "LMOs" covered by the treaty include genetically modified foods, seeds, veterinary pharmaceuticals and possibly some drugs. The treaty negotiations had been conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, as mandated by the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity.

At home in Toronto, I watched Newsworld, starting early in the morning, wondering if the negotiations had been successful, or whether they had collapsed. Since 1996, I had been a member of the Advisory Committee to the federal government on the Protocol, and had attended several negotiation sessions as a member of the Canadian delegation. In that role, I had argued with Canadian trade officials and agriculture representatives about the Protocol, with many acrimonious exchanges. It often appeared to me that the original environmental protection purpose of the treaty had been entirely subordinated to Canadian and American trade interests.

At Rio in 1992, developing countries had pressed for a biosafety protocol. They were concerned about the rapid proliferation and aggressive marketing of genetically modified food and seeds by Northern corporations, without effective regulatory regimes in receiving countries in the South. Like many environmentalists, they were unwilling to simply accept exporters' assurances that the products are safe.

Given the rich biodiversity of Southern ecosystems, genetically modified living organisms obviously entail serious risks. They have the potential to interbreed with local species, or eradicate them or permanently change species including food crops, to the detriment of all of us. They also have the potential to cause serious disruption of Southern agriculture with widespread socioeconomic effects. Southern governments and NGOs therefore wanted a process to require exporters to obtain advance informed agreements (AIA) from a receiving country prior to the import of a particular LMO, enabling receiving countries to decide whether to allow the import and if so, under what conditions. Their spokesman in the negotiations was Dr. Tewolde Egziabher of Ethiopia, whose steadfast strength in the face of the bullying tactics of Northern governments was heroic and inspirational.

Northern exporting countries, including Canada, sought a weak protocol, and had actually caused the collapse of negotiations in Cartagena in 1999, by refusing to agree to include LMOs shipped for food. (For Canada, that means genetically-modified canola, soybeans, corn, and potatoes.) Trade in such commodities constitutes about 90% of the LMOs that move across borders so excluding them from the Protocol would have made the treaty essentially useless. In the early stages of preparation of the Protocol, Canada's position appeared flexible enough to accommodate a strong treaty, but over the years I observed the increasing hard-line dominance of trade officials in Canada's approach. When I asked a trade official why Canada had led the charge in causing the collapse of the Cartagena session of talks, he had a two-word response, "We're exporters." Presumably, that's all that matters.

The final Protocol is a blend of positive and negative elements. It requires advance informed agreement, so that before an exporter sends a first export of an LMO to a country, the country has the right to require a full risk assessment of the product in order to judge its possible impacts in the receiving environment and human health. The country is entitled to refuse the LMO or accept it, with or without conditions. The treaty also includes strong "precautionary" language, enlarging the scope of decision-making for environmental protection.

However, since genetically-modified commodities (ie, LMOs imported in foods, feeds, or for processing) are combined with conventional crops in international trade, exporters argued that they can't even identify what ships will be carrying LMOs. Therefore, such ships will merely carry labels indicating that they may contain LMOs. Information about the LMOs will be available on an Internet "Clearing House Mechanism" and importing countries will have access to it to decide, before any shipment actually occurs, whether to permit a given LMO in their country. This system is clearly totally inadequate for regulating this trade. Further labelling requirements for these shipments are to be negotiated and if the current widespread consumer rejection of these foods continues, segregation and labelling of genetically modified products is likely to occur, enabling better regulation.

That the treaty is not explicitly subservient to the WTO trade agreement is a major victory, and with the strong precautionary wording, it constitutes an important legal precedent. We owe thanks to Juan Mayr, the Colombian Environment Minister who chaired the final session, for his astute strategic sense, and the many environment ministers who attended the session at his invitation and helped keep the focus on biodiversity protection. Now we have to ensure that Canada signs the agreement, and that further negotiations effectively regulate commodities.

Michelle Swenarchuk is a lawyer, and the International Programme Director at CELA