Biosafety Protocol 1999

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Monday, March 19, 2001

The February 1999 Biodiversity Protocol meeting in Colombia broke down because USA, not even a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which the protocol is meant to be part of, and five other countries of the "Miami Group" felt that their business interests were threatened.

5 countries vs. 130.

About 130 other countries wanted to implement a protocol that would act as a precautionary measure when dealing with living modified organisms (LMOs). Why? Because the safety of so many people and ecosystems could be at stake if it in fact turns out that some of the LMOs and other genetically engineered (GE) organisms appear to be dangerous to the environment. However, the Miami Group wanted the Biosafety Protocol to only apply to seeds and not commodities. It was also against requirements to label genetically modified products.

(Genetic engineering is a major topic of debate in most places, like Europe and Asia -- although, notably, not in USA -- as many argue whether or not GE related food, especially is safe or not. It is very difficult to tell because of no long term data and therefore caution seems to be a good idea due to the potential impacts if GE food turns out to be unsafe. There is a section on GE Food on this web site that provides a lot more information on the food related aspects of this subject. This section on the Biosafety Protocol covers what happened at the conference in Colombia that aimed to tackle the safety issues of living modified organisms, which not only affects food, which the GE Food section is about, but other areas where LMOs could be used, such as medicine.).

Instead of the safety concerns of over 130 countries, representing about nine tenths of the entire population of the planet, six countries were able to prevent this (USA, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile and Uruguay) on the grounds of free trade, or basically big business concerns.

This group of six, known as the Miami Group want a free trade treaty and do not want countries to be able to have risk assessment and prior approval of any LMOs. They want this to fall under the WTO as well, which could enforce these preventions of safety checks. In other words, they appear to want to prevent a country to even try and implement any safety measures for its own people. This is basically like the ideas behind NAFTA and the MAI.

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"We will act multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must"

It is interesting to note here how the US have used the argument of the WTO as a place to ensure free trade, while with the emerging banana-related trade war, the WTO was only used to get a ruling that favored US interests and then the US totally bypassed the WTO resolution process and started to impose sanctions on the European Union. (The above quote is from Madeline Albright, regarding the Iraq crisis in 1998, but very applicable here too.)

As suggested at the beginning of the GE Food section, while the argument of whether LMOs, GMOs etc is actually safe or not, is important, so too is the way in which this question is being answered (or not, in some cases!). From what seems to have happened at this protocol, a country that isn't even a signatory to the underlying Convention for Biological Diveristy has been able to undermine a process which is trying to determine some precautionary measure while the safety questions get tackled.

Other issues are also pushed to the side line, as seen in the GE Food section, such as labeling, patenting (or biopiracy, from the view points of indigenous peoples who lose the right to use their own knowledge), food security and costs of using these technologies. (This report from Oxfam also provides an excellent insight into many of these issues and how they affect developing nations.)

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Saturday, February 27, 1999
  • Last Updated: Monday, March 19, 2001

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