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THIS PAGE WAS UPDATED ON: 01/18/02

lead.jpg (22302 bytes)    Volume 4 
   Number 1
   1 February 1999 

TOPIC - BIODIVERSITY

BIOSAFETY: AN INDUSTRY PERSPECTIVE AS THE DEADLINE APPROACHES
Val Giddings, Ph.D., Vice President for Food & Agriculture
Biotechnology Industry Organization


As the final negotiating session of the Biosafety Protocol looms, the issues emerge with an unprecedented clarity. How they are resolved will be enormously significant to many different stakeholders: industry, of course, but also to those concerned for biodiversity, those who would like to see future economic development follow a more sustainable path than in the past, and particularly those who understand the enormous challenges facing agriculture around the world as we contemplate the continuing growth of the human population. It is possible, if they make wise decisions, that delegates coming to Cartagena may make a substantial positive contribution toward some very important objectives. They may help production agriculture as it struggles to become more sustainable and productive by stimulating and speeding the development and dissemination of the best, safest, new agricultural products and techniques. And delegates may fulfill the hopes of many around the world that the Biodiversity Convention will emerge as a constructive and respected vehicle to enhance global stewardship of the environment. But all this is contingent on the delegates producing a pragmatic and realistic biosafety protocol. What are the key issues?

Above all, scope. There are two elements to the scope issue— scope of the protocol and scope of the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) mechanism. The mandate of the Conference of the Parties is clearly laid out in COP Decision II/5: the protocol should focus "on transboundary movement, of any living modified organism resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effect on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity...". Some have argued that the protocol scope should be expanded to include dead products of LMOs, such as pharmaceutical compounds, or materials intended for consumption or use in containment, such as commodity shipments of grain. Such an expansion of the protocol scope would not only be scientifically unsupportable, but it would result in a document manifestly not serious about its mandate. If implemented, global trade would be massively disrupted, hope for the biodiversity convention itself could be irrevocably shattered, and all with no benefit to the environment.

The AIA should be reserved for what is, in fact, a small subset of the LMOs that move across international boundaries—those that realistically present the potential for adverse impacts on biodiversity. A mechanism that fails to distinguish between LMOs that deserve scrutiny because they are likely to be problematic, or where there are significant unknowns, from those amply shown to be no different than traditional materials, will burden regulators with wasteful tasks that benefit no one. Assertions that there are still too many unknowns, that more research is needed, are astonishingly unburdened by any familiarity with our actual experience.

Transgenic crops were grown this past season on over 70 million acres worldwide, nearly 60 million acres in the U.S. alone. Genetically engineered crops have substantially cut the need for farmers to use a variety of costly inputs, most notably pesticides and herbicides. The only surprises have been at unexpected environmental benefits: improved weed control reduces the need for insect pest control by eliminating havens from which insects re-colonize fields; and more efficient pest control reduces insect damage and increases efficiency of fertilizer uptake, which in turn reduces contamination of runoff water. In fact, these technologies are so beneficial to farmers that every last seed that has been put up for sale has been bought by farmers exercising their own judgement and freedom of choice, to the enduring benefit of the global environment.

There are many other key issues too—capacity building, liability and compensation, treatment of confidential business information, trade with non-parties, socioeconomic impacts, and more. But as a practical matter, none of them will be important unless the issues of scope are resolved in a pragmatic way. Without a realistic outcome on the issue of scope, no Protocol can be workable. The negative consequences of such an outcome are something we can all agree should be avoided.

Mr. Giddings works for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which can be found on the Internet: at http://www.bio.org/welcome.html