Intervenor: Vol 23. No 3 July - September 1998

International Biosafety Protocol Negotiations

Since 1995, governments from about 100 countries have been meeting regularly to negotiate an international protocol to govern trade in genetically modified living organisms. These "living modified organisms" (LMOs) include products such as Canada's genetically modified canola grain and potatoes, as well as viruses, bacteria, and other micro-organisms. The Protocol is being negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program, as mandated by provisions in the Convention on Biological Diversity signed at the Rio 1992 conference. The Protocol is a high priority for many Southern countries, which are concerned about the rapid spread of genetically modified agricultural products in international trade, and the potential effects these products may have on local biodiversity, including agricultural plants and animals. Therefore, the goal of Southern countries includes developing strong notification requirements so that countries receive advance notice and have the opportunity to assess potential risks from the import of LMOs. They will then be able to decide whether to permit the import of the product, and if so, under what conditions.

Risks include the spread of genes from the modified plant into local plants; loss of genetic diversity in countries which are the origins of important crops (corn in Mexico, for example); spread of genetic resistance to pesticides in local plants; spread of allergens from new food products, etc. The South is also concerned about the much larger issue of displacement of local biodiversity and agriculture by genetically modified seeds aggressively marketed by multinationals like Monsanto, and the consequent social, economic and environmental effects. For Northern countries including Canada, the priority is to minimize the impact on trade in LMOs without compromising national regulatory approaches to these products. The US, the world's major producer of LMOs, is a major influence on the international negotiations, seeking to limit their scope and effect, although as a non-Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the US cannot sign the Protocol.

The Protocol will be completed in one last negotiating session in Colombia in February 1999; although, at this time, there is a clear North-South polarization on virtually every major issue, with Canada siding squarely with Northern producer countries. Unresolved issues include the very basic question of which LMOs will be subject to the Protocol so as to require prior notice before shipping to the importing country and an opportunity for that government to assess it. Further, disagreements exist regarding whether threats to human health can be assessed, or only threats to biodiversity; whether exporters, importers, or their national governments are responsible for notification and accuracy of information; what time frame will govern decision making; and what elements can be considered in "science-based risk assessment." To Northern governments, social scientific assessments of potential social impacts should not form part of the risk assessment, while, to much of the South, these are major issues.

Two other overriding disputes exist. Heated discussions occurred in the August negotiating session between Northern and Southern countries on the issue of liability for negative effects of LMOs, since this is a major concern of the South, and Northern producer countries refuse to consider an obligation to be responsible for the impacts of their products. Second, the negotiations have been constantly overshadowed by the existence of the 1994 WTO/GATT agreements, and the primacy of trade over all other considerations.

On the trade issue, Canada supports wording, originally introduced by the non-Party US, which would make this agreement subordinate to the WTO, providing that the provisions of the Protocol would not affect the rights and obligations of any Party derived from any existing international agreement to which it is also a party. In other words, the deregulated trade requirements of the WTO will take precedence over the trade regulation requirements of the Protocol. Canada is therefore deliberately giving up the opportunity to use this Protocol to reconcile trade and environmental issues, and to lead in the promotion of the interests of the increasingly impoverished South.

This perspective, reflecting the one-dimensional thinking of the trade promoters in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Canadian agricultural industry, continues although the current international economic turmoil is revealing ever larger cracks in the edifice of free market ideology.

The NGO delegates will continue to try to promote an environmental focus in the Canadian position, and will be considering strategies to further this goal.

Michelle Swenarchuk is a lawyer, and is participating as a member of the Advisory Committee to the federal government and an NGO member of the Canadian negotiating delegation for the Protocol.