by Hélène Ilbert, Solagral.
t is time for the environmental agreements to emerge from the obscurity
of the United Nations trade related organizations. The Biosafety
Protocol sets a restrictive frame to transboundary movements of
living organisms ensuing from biotechnologies. The countries that
have ratified the Protocol will be empowered to refuse imports on
their territories of any genetically modified living organism they
consider as potentially hazardous for the environment or human health.
The precautionary principle, advance informed agreement and liability
regime will provide with an international appeal the developing
countries generally lacking efficient rules on biosafety matters.
As the first meeting on the implementation of the Protocol is
going to take place in Montpellier (December 2000), important
disputes exist between the various negotiating groups. The United
States leading the Miami Group remain the major opponents to the
agreement. Many arrangements minimizing the extend of the precautionary
principle were made under their pressure, in particular the social
and economical effects of introducing genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) are not much taken into account anymore. Meanwhile the
European Union has made common cause with the developing countries
by supporting compromise proposals.
Biosafetys founding principles, to which the civil society
is still attached, should remain the guideline of these negotiations:
safety must not be subordinated to trade, this should be reasserted
according to the precautionary principle. Uncertainty must be
sufficient to justify a decision of market withdrawal. It is also
necessary to clearly define liabilities. The assessment mechanisms
and legal frames (positive European law and American jurisprudential
standards) that will be chosen will determine the cost-sharing
mechanisms. Finally, careful attention should be paid to the "details"
of the implementation that will be discussed during the next two
years. Even though non-governmental organizations are not directly
involved in the negotiation process, it is important that they
take action upstream and thus exert their influence on the regulation
Clear identification of marketed products is certainly one major
stake. The right for countries or individuals to choose in full
awareness relies on full knowledge and monitoring at every stage
of the channel in order to be able to withdraw the products from
the market and avoid any long-term possible impact on the environment.
Labeling, traceability, and prior information are necessary to
establish liabilities. For a whole cargo, a simple mention such
as "may contain GMOs" is far from being sufficient.
While 45 million hectares of GMOs are now being cropped over
the world (they were less than 3 millions three years ago), and
while the United States alone produce 72 % of the total amount,
the choices concerning the worlds trade regulation should
be openly debated. This special issue of the Courrier de la Planète
is aiming to afford the essential elements of discussion by appraising
the practical possibilities of ruling upon technologies that may
have negative side-effects on health and the environment.