Support us


Our newsletter

Subscribe now

Take action

Send a letter

Get involved


Contact us

By email

By post

Tweets from our groups
You are here: Home / Media / Archive / 2000 / biosafetytalks


UN Biosafety Talks: The Fight for the Right to Say
No to GMOs


FoE EWNI Background Info for Press, Jan 10, 2000

Key international discussions on regulating the world trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will take place in Montreal from the 24th to 28th January (informal discussions begin on 20th January). A "Conference of the Parties" under the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Convention on Biological Diversity will meet to discuss a proposed Biosafety Protocol. This briefing explains what the Protocol is, why it is important, how negotiations have proceeded in the past, and what is likely to happen in Montreal. 

FoE experts will be present in Montreal throughout the talks ( contact details at the end of this briefing note). Our London office will also be able to offer informed comment. 

What is the Biosaftey Protocol?

The proposed Biosafety Protocol would allow national governments to regulate trade in GMOs. It would enable them to restrict trade in GMOs on environmental or health grounds, and set rules on liability and labelling. It would protect the interests both of consumers and of primary food producers, and set limits to the activities of multinational biotech companies. 

What's Happened So Far?

There has been great resistance to agreement on international regulation of GMOs, particularly from the United States, which expects to be a world leader in GM technology. 
• at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the USA refused to become a signatory of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) 
• In Jakarta in 1995, countries which had signed the CBD agreed to begin discussions on a Biosafety Protocol. Ideas discussed included Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) - enabling countries to be notified of and hence approve or refuse imports of GMOs - and a Biotechnology Clearinghouse to allow sharing of information between countries 
• in Cartagena in 1999, talks on the Protocol broke down due to the blocking actions of a small group of GMO and grain exporting countries including the USA 
• in Vienna in September 1999, an informal meeting of the parties in  Vienna established that political will for a protocol still existed, and further negotiations were scheduled for January 2000 in Montreal. A full Conference of the Parties of the CBD is set for May 2000 in Nairobi 
• in Seattle in November 1999, an attempt was made by the European Commission and the US Administration to include biotechnology in the remit of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This would have the effect of making trade in GMOs subject to "free trade" rules, and would greatly restrict the right of national Government to restrict GMO imports. The attempt was blocked after protests by NGOs including Friends of the Earth, and by EU environment ministers led by Michael Meacher. Controversy over GMOs was an important factor in the collapse of the WTO talks. 

Key Issues:

• should the Protocol have a "savings clause" – to allow countries to bring GMO related trade disputes before the WTO? In Cartagena, the El Salvador representative called this idea a "protocol for biotrade" 
• should GMOs for use in food, feed and processing (commodities) be included, or should the rules only apply to the small percentage of GMOs intended for other uses such as seed? Should products derived from GMOs,  but without GM DNA, be included – for example food containing GM soya ingredients? 
• how should the precautionary principle apply to GMOs? In the draft Protocol, there is only a reference to the "precautionary approach" in the preamble 
• should socio–economic considerations be taken into account in risk assessments – for example, the impacts on non-GM farmers' livelihoods of the importation and growing of GM seed? 
• should GMOs intended for "contained use" be included – for example GMOS intended for use in a glasshouse or laboratory, or even GMOs that are contained by a non-physical barrier (such as a trait that  can only be switched on by chemical applications)? 
• should the Protocol address issues of liability and redress? To date it has only been possible to agree to adopt a "process" to resolve this issue at some time in the future. 
• should the handling, transport conditions, packaging and labelling of GMOs should be regulated? 
Other issues previously debated include: illegal traffic, risk  management, whether trade with "non-parties" (such as USA) should be blocked, minimum national standards, segregation, the use of simplified procedures and freedom of information. 

Who Wants What?

There are five main negotiating blocks: 
1. The Miami Group (USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile) 
This group would like to exclude commodities (90% of GMOs) from the agreement. It also 
wants a "savings clause" which would protect its "rights" under other international agreements, in particular, the WTO. Essentially the Group takes a "free trade" position. 
2. The Like Minded Group (over 100 developing countries, including China) 
This group wants to ensure that the Protocol covers all GMOs, including those for food, feed and commodities and contained use. It wants countries which wish to export their GMOs to get consent in advance from the country which will receive them. 
3. The European Union 
The EU essentially wants to resume negotiations where they broke off in Cartagena. It states it is determined to reach an agreement that includes GMOs for food, feed or processing as well as for cultivation and an "adequate" authorisation procedure. It may well decide to live with the current compromise on the precautionary principle and liability. It is not clear how much further will the EU compromise in order to get an agreement; in particular on the relationship between trade and Biosafety. A return to anything like the compromise offered to the US at the WTO talks in Seattle (see above) would be highly controversial. 
4. The Compromise Group (Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand and others) 
This group claim to be playing a bridging role: they are not necessarily agreed on all points but prepared to broker compromises. 
5. The Central and Eastern Europeans 
To date this group has acted in concert with the LMG. 

What do We Want?

Key points which Friends of the Earth International (the world's largest environment network, with groups in 61 countries) wants to see in the Protocol include: 
• The right to say no to GMOs in food. Imports of GMOs should be subject to advanced informed agreement based on the precautionary principle; all types of GMOs (including commodities and those for contained use)  should be subject to the Protocol; handling, transport conditions, packaging and labelling should be subject to regulation; and there should be a central registry of GMO and biotechnology activities such as research and development, laboratory and field testing, market release,  intra- and inter-country transfers and disposal 
• Biosafety first - trade second. The Protocol should not be subordinate to the WTO or other trade agreements 
• Polluter pays. The Protocol should include an international regime of unlimited liability covering all damage that may arise from GMOs, including damage to health and the environment 
• A fair deal for developing countries. The Protocol should provide for special and differential treatment for developing countries and economies in transition, including increased transfer of technical assistance and GMO monitoring capability.  


Liana Stupples 
Campaigns Director, FoE EWNI
Tel: 44 171 490 1555 
Fax: 44 171 490 0881 

Adrian Bebb 
Food & Biotech Campaigner, FoE EWNI
Tel: 44 171 490 1555/113 242 8153 
e-mail: k

Ian Willmore & Neil Verlander 
Media Unit , FOE EWNI 
Tel: 44 171 566 1649 







Document Actions