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You are here: Home / Media / Archive / 2000 / fight_press_briefing





THE BIOSAFETY PROTOCOL: Last chance for an international environmental agreement on genetically modified organisms?


Biotech companies could achieve their ambition of being able to force feed the world GM food unless the governments of the world can agree the answer to a simple question this January: when it comes to GMOs, which comes first - people and the environment or free trade?

This briefing explains the issues surrounding the Biosafety Protocol, a proposed new international environmental agreement for the control of the import and export of all Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

The Protocol, if agreed, should establish basic rules to ensure the protection of biodiversity and human health, protect the world’s poor from unscrupulous multinational companies and give countries the right to choose whether or not to import GMOs and under what conditions. It also raises the thorny issues of liability if GMOs go wrong, GMO labelling and the socio-economic impacts of GMOs.

Attempts to agree international regulation of GMOs have been dogged with controversy since their beginning; at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the USA refused to ratify the Convention on Biological Diversity (a move which helped to protect its biotechnology industry interests). Today, attempts to agree a Protocol under that same convention have become a symbol of the showdown between so called free trade under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the protection of developing countries, consumers and the environment. Last February in Cartagena, Colombia, talks broke down completely due to the blocking actions of a small group of GMO and grain exporting countries including the USA. Following hot on the heels of the collapsed WTO talks in December 1999 in Seattle, where trade in GMOs caused key divisions, the Biosafety talks resume this January 2000. It could be the first intergovernmental agreement of the millennium, it may be the last chance to agree global GMO rules.


Genetically Modified Organisms (or Living Modified Organisms - LMOs - as they are referred to in the Protocol) are living things in which the DNA (which makes up the genes or "blueprints" for the development and functioning of that organism) is deliberately altered, often by the insertion of DNA from another organism. By doing this, genetic engineers hope that the modified organism will have the traits programmed by the inserted DNA. For example, a new kind of corn plant that is resistant to an insect pest can be produced by inserting DNA from a bacterium that is toxic to that pest. In some cases, once the new DNA is in an organism it can be passed on to the next generation, and by cross breeding spread through a population. Genetic modification is being applied in a number of fields, from cleaning up contaminated land to medicine and agriculture.

Genetic modification is a relatively new science and its methods are not precise. It is therefore not possible to predict all the outcomes of modifying an organism or of releasing it into the environment. There is insufficient evidence to be able to say that the use of GMOs in agriculture and food is safe for the environment or human health. Genetic modification also raises moral and ethical issues and has potentially significant social and economic impacts. For example, the use of GMOs in agriculture may lead to:

  1. greater intensification of agriculture and knock on impacts on resource use, biodiversity and rural economies
  2. dominance by a few multinational companies of the food chain with less choice available for consumers and farmers alike
  3. "bio-piracy" when patents are taken out by multinational companies on indigenous or traditionally used biological resources
  4. decreased food security
  5. marginalisation of biological or subsistence farmers


Jakarta in 1995, after years of debate, the Governments that were party to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) agreed to start working on a protocol for safety in the trans-boundary transfers of GMOs.

It had a shaky start, but all parties seemed to recognise the importance of agreeing rules for this new technology. The idea of Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) emerged to enable countries to be notified and say yes or no to imports. The concept of a Biotechnology Clearinghouse was also raised to allow sharing of information between countries.

Differences began to grow between some of the industrialised countries and the developing countries particularly over issues of "capacity"; many developing countries do not have their own laws on GMOs yet nor the technical expertise or resources to screen imports or implement international laws.

GMO exporting countries tended to be the industrialised countries and they wanted to have streamlined procedures that would not hamper their trade. The EU saw itself as being between the US and developing countries. Some parties were genuinely concerned about issues such as liability for damage from GMOs, socio-economic impacts, and risk assessment.

It came to a head in February 1999 where an attempt was made to finally agree a Protocol in the Colombian city of Cartagena. Despite much compromise, in the last hours the negotiations failed, largely because a group of GMO exporting countries led by the USA refused to co-operate with the others on issues to do with trade in commodities such as grain. This was shocking to many because the USA had not even ratified the Convention and so is not an official party to the talks.

In September 1999 an informal meeting of the Parties in Vienna established that political will for a Protocol still existed and agreed to have one more attempt to finalise talks in January 2000 in Montreal.


A key contributor to the downfall of the WTO negotiations in Seattle was the European Commission’s agreement to a Biotechnology Working Group under the WTO backed by the US, Canada and others. Such a working group was destined to undermine the Biosafety Protocol negotiations as key countries such as the US would argue that the Protocol should not be finalised while a WTO working group was in progress. The proposal was almost unanimously rejected by the member states of the EU and was the subject of vigorous protests by a key group of environment ministers before all the talks broke down.

The controversy exposed the USA and others’ agenda to have trade rules as the ultimate arbiter of GMO issues despite the WTO’s inability to deal with socio-economic, human health and environmental issues. It also raised important questions about democracy; for example the question of the European Commission’s decision to take a pro-biotech stance against the express wish of the elected representatives and in the face of widespread public concern in Europe.



There are several key areas of disagreement going into the January 2000 negotiations. These include:

Whether the Protocol needs a so-called "savings clause" – which would in effect give trade law precedence over the Biosafety Protocol. The trade question was one of the key stumbling points in Cartagena with the El Salvador representative calling the resulting text a " Protocol for biotrade " and the India representative saying " the Protocol appears to facilitate trade in GMOs rather than to protect biodiversity ."

Whether GMOs for use in food, feed and processing (commodities) should be included – or if the rules only apply to the small percentage of GMOs intended for other uses such as seed.

How the precautionary principle should apply and whether it should be explicitly referred to in the text of the Protocol. To date, a reference is only made to the "precautionary approach" in the preamble.

Whether products derived from GMOs should be included or not – for example food containing GM soya ingredients.

Whether socio–economic considerations should be taken into account – for example, the impacts on non-GM farmers’ livelihoods of the importation and growing of GM seed.

Whether GMOs intended for "contained use" should be included – for example, should GMOs intended for use in a glasshouse, a 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) be exempt?

Whether the Protocol should address the issue 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.

Whether 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.


There are now five main negotiating blocks in the Biosafety talks:

The Miami Group (USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile)

The Miami Group, consisting of the main grain commodity and GMO export countries, would like to exclude commodities from the agreement completely. This would leave the bulk (some 90%) of transboundary movements of GMOs unregulated (or at best subject to minimum information sharing provisions when they are first officially approved).

The Miami Group is also adamant on the need for a "savings clause" which would protect what it claims are its "rights" under other international agreements, in particular, the WTO. Essentially it wants trade law to prevail. The right of countries and consumers and farmers to say no to GMOs would then be severely curtailed and subject to all the current limitations of the WTO – for example, the inability to adequately apply the precautionary principle and the tendency to protect big business interests over the interests of citizens, consumers and the environment.

The Like Minded Group (LMG)( - over 100 developing countries and China)

The LMG is particularly concerned that the scope of the Protocol and the AIA procedure should cover all GMOs (including those for food, feed and commodities and contained use) and tabled new text in Vienna on this. It wants countries which wish to export their GMOs to get consent in advance from the country which will receive the GMOs. The idea is that the importing country will have the choice to accept, reject or place conditions on the GMOs in question, based on environmental and other relevant considerations. The LMG proposal would allow exemptions for GMOs that are human pharmaceuticals or for use in research.

The LMG is also concerned about issues of capacity building, arguing that they need assistance and time to implement any Protocol.

The EU

The latest EU position was agreed at a meeting of EU Environment Ministers on 13 December 1999. 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.

The question is how much further will the EU compromise in order to get an agreement; in particular, will it compromise on the relationship between trade and Biosafety? The Environment Council has stated that trade and environment agreements and policies should be "mutually supportive and have equal legal status with other agreements and not be subordinate to such agreements." In practice, just conceding that the two only have equal standing may give the WTO the stronger hand because it has stronger enforcement mechanisms.

The Compromise Group (Switzerland, Norway, New Zealand and others)

This group claim to be playing a bridging role where they are not necessarily agreed on all points but prepared to broker compromises. For example, in Vienna they tabled some concepts for an alternative (weaker) AIA procedure for GMOs for food, feed and processing. But the Miami group would not agree to it.

The Central and Eastern Europeans

To date this group has tended to adopt positions between those of the LMG and the EU.


Friends of the Earth International is the world’s largest network of grass-roots citizens and environmental organisations with members from 64 countries. Since 1995, Friends of the Earth International has tracked and contributed to the Biosafety negotiations bringing a unique perspective that crosses traditional governmental negotiating blocks. Friends of the Earth’s position is based on the need to ensure equitable sustainable development, protect biodiversity and human health and uphold basic democratic rights of citizens throughout the world.

The Biosafety Protocol should secure Biosafety, contribute to ensuring food security for all and the development of global sustainable agriculture.

A Biosafety Protocol should:

Protection and precaution

  1. aim at the protection and sustainable use and conservation of biological diversity and the protection of human health
  2. have the precautionary principle as the overriding basis for all decisions adopted so that damage is foreseen and prevented

The right to say NO to GMOs in food

  1. not allow trans-boundary movement of GMOs without advanced informed agreement (AIA) (and not include weakened procedures)
  2. not exclude movements or types of GMOs from the scope of the Protocol. Food, feed and commodities need to be in the agreement because in practice it will not be possible to distinguish between for example, soya beans imported intended for use as feed or as soya beans imported intended for use as seed (particularly given the on the ground situation in many developing countries)
  3. require regulation of handling, transport conditions, packaging and labelling
  4. require parties to ban import from and export to countries not party to the Protocol and address illegal movements
  5. set up a central registry of GMO and biotechnology activities such as research and development, laboratory and field testing, market release, international transfers and disposal

Biosafety first - trade second

  1. not be subordinate to the WTO. Instead the Biosafety Protocol should take precedence in all relevant GMO matters. There should be no "savings clause." GMO-related trade disputes should go before the Protocol’s dispute settlement mechanism and not the WTO’s.
  2. establish minimum national standards rather than effectively setting maximum allowable levels of biosafety

The Polluter Pays

  1. establish an international regime of unlimited liability covering all damage that may arise from GMOs, including environmental damage

Environmental and Social Impact Assessment

  1. provide for AIA consent to be based on the results of an environmental and a social impact assessment process within the country of import
  2. risk assessment and consent procedures should provide, at the minimum, opportunity for the public in the areas likely to be affected by the proposed GMO importation to participate in the process. In particular, the impacts on the marginalised groups (such as small scale farmers).

People participation

  1. require the governmental regulatory agency assigned to give AIA consent to provide for and implement a public notification, consultation, and comments period
  2. mandate governments to proactively make available and accessible to the public information regarding the environmental, health, biodiversity, social, and economic impacts of the introduction of GMOs
  3. provide for institutional mechanisms for civil society participation in all levels of policy-making with respect to GMOs from the national to the international level

A Fair Deal for Developing Countries and Economies in Transition

  1. provide for special and differential treatment for developing countries and economies in transition in terms of increased transfer of technical assistance and GMO monitoring capability over and above existing financial mechanisms under the Biodiversity Convention


Despite its long and controversial history, there is still hope for an effective Biosafety Protocol, but the outcome of the January talks is by no means certain.

Since the negotiations began, public support for GMOs in food and agriculture has plummeted while growing evidence points to the associated environment and health risks (see separate briefing). Meanwhile global trade in GMOs is predicted to grow substantially. Global sales of transgenic crops have increased by approximately twenty-fold in the four year period 1995 to 1998. The global market for transgenic crops is projected to increase to $3 billion or more in 2000, to $8 billion in 2005, and to $25 billion in 2010. The number of countries growing transgenic crops has increased from 1 in 1992, to 6 in 1996, to 9 in 1998, and is expected to continue to grow to the year 2000 and beyond. This provides a more urgent case than ever for a system that formalises the precautionary principle.

After failures in both Cartagena and Seattle, government negotiators will be unwilling to sustain another blow to the inter-governmental system. Some lessons may have emerged from Seattle about the need to ensure an open process and to deliver real benefits for the environment and people. As the USA public begins to question GMOs and biotech company stock falters, the USA may recognise the need to soften its position. Meanwhile, businesses and consumers in the EU have begun to prove that trade in GM free food is both practical and profitable. In any case the hand of the developing countries appears to have been strengthened which could mean they are less willing to give up their demands in the next round.

The Biosafety Protocol offers an opportunity to supporters of the WTO to regain some credibility - can a way be found for the WTO to stand back from this process rather than obstruct it?

Enlightened companies will be aware that the lack of internationally agreed rules on biosafety is bad for business and governments may well be convinced that public confidence in food and agriculture can only be bolstered by a strong and transparent system of rules.

However, the risk remains that rules agreed may merely serve to facilitate smooth trade in GMOs, rather than, as its prime purpose should be, ensure Biosafety.

Attendance by Government Ministers may be essential to create the political impetus to achieve a successful outcome yet it is not clear how many elected representatives will be attending in Montreal. Civil society and media scrutiny is set to be higher than ever before. The world will be watching.


Friends of the Earth International
PO Box 19199
1000 GD Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 622 1369
Fax: +31 20 639 2181

FOE International representatives in Montreal

La Tour Centre Ville
Tel: +1 514 866 8861
Fax: +1 514 866 7257

Liana Stupples
Mobile: +1 514 239 4253 (from 19/01 - 29/01)

Adrian Bebb
Mobile: +1 514 239 4276 (from 19/01 - 29/01)

Dan Leskien
Gill Lacroix
Sarah Newport
Karin Nansen
Sheila Forsyth

Published by Friends of the Earth International
January 2000.




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