Saturday, March 20, 2004



The First Meeting of the Parties (MOP 1) to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was held in
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 23 to 27 Febuary, 2004. It was attended by the 87 countries , including India, that are currently Party to the Protocol.The Biosafety Protocol derives from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which was adopted in 1992 in Nairobi. It was concluded in 2000 after several years of negotiations and is the first binding international agreement dealing with Biosafety with respect to genetically modified organisms, which the Protocol refers to as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). The Protocol itself came into force on September 11, 2003 when the requisite number of Parties had ratified it. India is a signatory to the Biosafety Protocol and bound by its provisions.

The provisions relate both to domestic measures that Parties have to implement as well as to the trans-boundary movement of LMOs. Domestic measures require Parties to regulate and control risks associated with LMOs that may have an impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and on human health. There is a special focus on the risks associated with the release of LMOs in centres of origin and diversity. This would apply to India for rice and other crop varieties for which it is a centre of origin and diversity. The trans-boundary movement of LMOs would touch upon trade in GM foods and where relevant, aid consignments.

Over the years of negotiations for the Biosafety Protocol, certain issues remained contentious, over which consensus could not be reached, chiefly due to the opposition of the USA ( which is not a member of the CBD or the Protocol) and its allies, Canada, Argentina and Mexico, forming the Miami Group. Some of these unresolved issues were brought to Kuala Lumpur , and included identifying shipments of LMOs; dealing with Parties that do not comply with the provisions of the Protocol and liability and compensation in cases where damage has occurred due to the trans-boundary movement of LMOs.

Ten major decisions were taken at the Kuala Lumpur MOPI. Of these, the three most important were Measures for handling, transporting, packaging and identifying LMOs, in line with Article 18 of the Protocol; Establishing compliance procedures and mechanisms for the Protocol; and Establishing an expert working group on liability and redress in the context of
the Protocol.Under Article 18 of the Protocol, countries are required to take measures so that that LMOs that move across borders are handled, packaged and transported safely. The aim is to avoid adverse effects on biodiversity and risks to human health. The MOP1 decided that there will have to be distinct documentation to accompany the three categories of LMOs. These are LMOs to be used as food or feed or for processing (
FFP); those that are for "contained use" as in laboratories; and those meant for introduction into the environment, for example, genetically modified seeds for planting.

For the
FFP category, documents should clearly identify that the shipment may contain LMOs for direct use as food, feed or for processing, but not for introduction into the environment. The documents should include the common, scientific and commercial names of the LMOs, and the method of genetic modification. An expert group was set up to develop a detailed implementation proposal for this.

For the category of LMOs meant for lab use, accompanying documents should clearly identify the LMOs by their common and scientific names, and that they are destined for contained use. Their commercial names and the new and modified traits and characteristics should be included. For the third category, like GM seeds, the documents should clearly describe their names and traits , specially the transgenic traits, the genetic transformation events and unique identification. The commercial name, risk class and the required approval permit for import under the Protocol should also be included. The documentation of LMOs under categories two and three must also specify any special requirements needed for safe handling, storage, transport and use under existing international instruments, as well as domestic regulations and any agreement made between the exporter and importer.

On the compliance issue, MOP 1 had a long debate on how to deal with countries that do not comply with their obligations under the Protocol. The European countries were especially keen to get a strong compliance regime so that countries would take their obligations seriously.
India took an ambiguous stand on compliance, not supportive of a strong compliance mechanism. This is probably due to the (misguided) perception that it would one day be an exporter of GM foods and products and therefore would not want to confront a rigorous compliance regime. India’s weak stand on compliance is not a wise move. First, it would encourage bad practices at home. A not always literate farming community, traders that are not in tune with international practices and the overall poor level of awareness about the implications of GM crops for the environment and human health could create dangerous situations. Strong compliance is needed at home, to protect us from ourselves and from others.

Despite the progress made at the MOP1, it remained a matter of concern that the conclusions failed to take on board a central concern of developing countries: that of the social and economic impacts of GM technology. This is of crucial significance to India and other developing countries where the impact on small farmers and their livelihoods could be considerable. Although it is very important to monitor GM crops, for their impact on biodiversity and the environment, as well as the health of humans and animals, it is equally important to watch out for the social and economical implications of this technology for farmers and consumers in developing countries. Social and economic costs of GM technology could be highly significant in the agricultural situation of the south and this should be monitored as critically as the health and environment.

It is a pity that the discussions at the Biosafety Protocol did not take up the social and economic aspects even though some country delegations specially the African Union flagged the issue repeatedly. The African countries in fact were trying to keep the focus on this aspect alive, at all levels of the discussions accompanying the meetings. Although India did mention socio-economic concerns in the official interventions, there was little follow up or lobbying to create a strong pressure group that would put the issue on the main agenda. As a result, it was not included in the main conclusions of the MOP1.

It is short sighted to overlook the fact that GM technology could turn out to be counter productive in the agricultural economies of developing countries. If GM technology were to displace small farmers, the impact would be detrimental. In fact a considerable focus of GM research is to produce products through genetic engineering, which at the moment are produced only in developing countries. One may recall what happened to vanilla. Madagascar, once the largest producer of vanilla, earned sizeable revenue for its farmers through its export. Determined to break this monopoly , US labs succeeded in synthesising vanilla and the markets flooded with the cheaper version, turned away from the natural vanilla produced by Madagascar. This resulted in big economic losses and hardship for farmers in Madagascar. Similarly, sugar-producing countries in Asia have suffered at the hands of another lab-based substitution. Cornstarch is used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, which has displaced sugar in large amounts from sectors like confectionery. Infact , most of the GM corn that is being grown by the US and Canada, is used either to produce High Fructose Corn Syrup, or as animal feed.

A strong line of GM research in the west is currently attempting to produce the characteristics of coconut and palm oil in the more common canola (a form of mustard). Canola grows in temperate countries whereas coconut and oil palm grow in the tropics. Many farmers in Asia earn a livelihood from the export of coconut and palm oil, both of which are sought after in the US and Europe for their special properties like high lauric acid content. When GM technology creates the canola plants that produce high lauric acid oils , it would mean the loss of markets for farmers growing coconuts and oil palm in countries like India and Malaysia.

Given the potential of GM technology to damage the agricultural prospects of developing countries, the social and economic impact of the technology must be taken on board in the international agreements on biosafety, through the Biosafety Protocol.

In effect this would mean that countries should have the right to refuse the import of a GM crop that could displace the produce of their own farmers, without attracting penalties and sanctions of the kind that happened in the EU- USA case. The EU which has had a de facto moratorium on GM crops, had refused the exports of corn and soybean from the US and was hauled by the US to the WTO Dispute Settlement Court and threatened with huge fines for refusing US imports, an act , the US claimed was trade distorting. Such a situation could easily arise for India and other developing countries if they were to refuse imports of GM foods on socio economic grounds, unless this was regulated through the internationally binding nature of the Biosafety Protocol. It is in India’s interest to ensure that socio-economic concerns as provided for in Article 26 of the Protocol are brought on to the main agenda.

No comments:

Post a Comment