Negotiations for a Biosafety Protocol

Biosafety means minimizing the potential risks to human health and the environment from the handling and transfer of living modified organisms produced through modern biotechnology.

Unlike the conventional methods, genetic engineering enables the transfer of new genes from an entirely unrelated species, the vector or vehicle for this transfer usually being viruses or plasmids. While the use of modern biotechnologies does hold promise for the benefit of mankind through higher production of food material and newer medicines for the treatment of various diseases, concerns have been raised about the potential risks which may arise from the release of transgenic and other Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs or LMOs as they are called) developed through modern biotechnologies. These risks include spread of introduced traits to non-target species leading to genetic contamination, development of pest and herbicide resistance, contamination of food chains, displacement of traditional animal breeds and plant varieties thereby causing genetic erosion. Apart from these, one school of thought also subscribes to socio-economic and ethical impact of the genetically modified organisms. For example, introduction of transgenic crops or products could replace traditional export crops which in turn could have far-reaching implications on the countries that are dependent on export of such crops for revenue.

Though there is a school of thought that feels that such alarms are over stated, data is being accumulated through some recent scientific findings that the LMOs have many negative ecological and health effects. Prudence therefore dictates the application of precautionary principle in the creation, handling and introduction of recombinant organisms including transgenic plants. Many countries with biotechnology industries already have domestic legislation to ensure the safe transfer, handling, use and disposal of LMOs and their products. However, there are no binding international agreements addressing situations where LMOs cross national borders.

Recognising the potential risks of genetically engineered organisms, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), has addressed this issue of biosafety as it is commonly called, in the Articles 8(g), 19.3 and 19.4. The Article 19.3 specifically calls the Parties to the CBD to consider the need for and modalities of a protocol setting out appropriate procedures, including, in particular, Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) , in the field of safe transfer, handling and use of any living modified organism resulting from biotechnology that may have adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

After protracted negotiations, an open-ended Ad-hoc Working Group met in Madrid 1995, wherein most of the countries agreed to develop a protocol on biosafety. The CoP-2 considered the Madrid report and decided to establish an open ended Ad-hoc Working Group to develop a protocol on biosafety through a negotiation process specifically focussing on transboundary movement of LMOs. The sixth and the last meeting of the Working Group was held in February 1999 in Cartegena, Colombia followed by an extraordinary meeting of CoP.

The Indian delegation to this meeting included representatives from Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of External Affairs, Deptt. of Biotechnology and MOEF. The Miami group consisting of USA, Canada, Australia, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina did not want to include products of LMOs and such of the LMOs which are traded as commodities under the scope of the protocol and were opposed to the extension of AIA procedure to products and commodities. The developing countries wanted inclusion of products of LMOs in the scope of the protocol and in the AIA in order to take an informed decision about such imports based on safety considerations. They were also opposed to the exclusion of any LMO from the scope of the protocol. This meeting failed to arrive at a consensus on the text of the protocol.

The outcome of the meeting was a Chairman s text of the protocol. The Extraordinary CoP adopted a decision to suspend the meeting and to resume it at a later date before May 2000, to discuss the Chairman s text and the modifications suggested by the EU and the Miami group which related to the scope, AIA procedures and trade related articles.