Friday, May 26, 2000 Page A-7
Sixty-Three Nations Sign Protocol
On Biosafety to U.N. Treaty on Biodiversity
NAIROBI--Despite long-time opposition from some environmental groups and years of wrangling by a U.S. government-led coalition, a total of 63
countries signed an international agreement on on biosafety May 24, bringing the document closer to ratification.
More countries are expected to sign the so-called Cartagena Protocol on biosafety over the final two days of the meeting of the United Nations
Convention on Biological Diversity and over the following year at U.N. headquarters in New York. The United States was not among the first group
of countries to sign.
The protocol to the U.N. biodiversity treaty will go into effect after it has been ratified by the legislatures in at least 50 countries--a process expected
to take at least two years. The agreement goes into effect 90 days after the 50th country ratifies it.
The protocol regulates the growing trade in genetically modified organism (GMOs). It requires that exporters of live fish, modified seed, and other
genetically altered products provide detailed information about the products being shipped; governments or importers have the right to refuse the
The protocol also requires that food products that may contain GMOs be labeled as such. But cross-border movements of those products and
pharmaceuticals are not regulated by the protocol.
The United Nations declared victory after the signatures were counted--though officials have been quick to point out that the agreement was part of a
larger effort to balance development with environmental concerns.
"This is like a circle--the beginning of one effort and the start of a new one," Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr, who was the first official
to sign the protocol and who was the lead negotiator for the agreement, told BNA May 24. "This is a great victory but not the end. We have the tool,
but now we have to work to develop that tool."
Discussion of Rapeseeds
The tools addressed by the protocol got some unwelcome attention following the announcement by the European Union on May 17 that Canadian
seed company Advanta had been found to have sold rapeseeds containing traces of genetically altered material to farmers in France, Germany,
Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The scandal caused an uproar in Europe. But organizers said the controversy helped stress the point that the
protocol is needed.
"The protocol was powerless in that situation," U.N. Environment Program Executive Director Klaus Töpfer told BNA May 24. "This is just more
reason for the countries to react quickly and approve the protocol."
Critics of the agreement attacked it from two sides. Some indigenous and environmental groups opposed any trade in GMOs for fear that they will
escape into the environment and could endanger native plant and animal populations. But more numerous critics attacked the measure for being too
'Miami Group' Influence
Several groups charged that the final version of the protocol was watered down due to influence from the Miami Group, a coalition that links some of
the world's largest GMO exporters: Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay, and the United States. Though all six of the Miami Group
countries are represented in Nairobi for the meetings, only Argentina signed the agreement.
The direct influence of the United States during negotiations for the protocol was relatively mild, because it never joined the Conference of the
Parties, which was created in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
But the United States, through cooperation with the other Miami Group members--all of which are members of the Conference of the Parties--and by
virtue of its influence as an economic superpower, was able to influence the proceedings to some degree.
"We have simply tried to bring the final result in line with what is in our best interests," Stephanie Caswell, deputy director of the U.S. State
Department's Office of Ecology and Terrestrial Conservation and the head of the U.S. delegation in Nairobi, told BNA May 25. "That's not wrong;
that's what negotiating is."
Future Areas of Concern
Observers of the meeting said that areas of concern remain. Two areas where the protocol is vague deal with regulation and liability. The scope of the
treaty's regulatory powers still needs to be spelled out more clearly, they said, as do provisions on liability in the event of damage resulting when
GMOs are transferred within the scope of the protocol.
Observers also stressed a need to further develop the limited capacity of poor countries to provide or--more importantly--to adequately process and
interpret data when provided by exporters.
"In order to make this work, the rich countries must help the poorer southern countries develop infrastructure and laws, to assimilate the knowledge,
and to procure funding," Francoise Pythoud, a delegate from Switzerland who has been involved in the development of the protocol, told BNA May
24. "Everyone agrees that this must be done, but the mechanism is not yet agreed upon."
U.S. Ratification Prospects
For the United States, the biggest problem involves ratification. Once the protocol goes into effect, the United States will still be subject to the
protocol, regardless of whether it approved it, when it deals with a country that ratified the pact. Furthermore, as one of only a handful of countries
that is not a member of the Conference of the Parties, its influence in determining the development of the protocol will be limited.
But analysts said that because of the 2000 U.S. elections, a quick approval is unlikely. "What I think will happen is that because the implications of
this protocol are so enormous, eventually corporations will pressure Congress into becoming a member of the conference of the parties," Caswell, the
head of the U.S. delegation, said. "The protocol can only be ratified once the U.S. is a member, and it will probably force the U.S. to take that step.
"It's a honeymoon for us now," Caswell added. "Once it's ratified, we lose a lot of influence."
By Eric J. Lyman
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