Ratification of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety by the South Pacific island nation of Palau last Friday sets next September 11 as the date that the 21st century's first environmental treaty will become international law--over the strong objections of the Bush administration.
Palau became the 50th country to ratify the Protocol, which aims to protect the environment from the potential risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the benchmark set by the 1992 treaty for entering into force. The treaty becomes international law 90 days after the 50th country ratifies it.
Palau's ratification was lauded by a number of environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) which stressed that the treaty is the first international agreement that "clearly says that GMOs 'are different and therefore require a different treatment'" than conventional plants or animals, a notion that has been strenuously resisted by the Bush administration.
"The times of uncontrolled trade of GMOs are over," said FoEI chairman Ricardo Navarro. "The Biosafety Protocol sets a new era for global regulation of GMOs." He said the treaty will encourage countries to prevent contamination of GM seed products by implementing an identity preservation system.
"Exporters from all over the world should take adequate measures to prevent contamination of GM seed products," he said.
Palau's ratification coincided with the release of a report by the London-based Independent Science Panel (ISP), a group of scientists from seven countries who oppose the use and spread of GMOs, which they consider to pose substantial risks to human health and the environment.
"GM crops have failed to deliver the promised benefits and are posing escalating problems on the farm," according to the statement signed by 25 biological scientists. "Transgenic contamination is now widely acknowledge to be unavoidable and hence there can be no co-existence of GM and non-GM agriculture. Most important of all, GM crops have not been proven safe," the scientists wrote in 'The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World.'
Their statement was accompanied by a major report covering more than 200 studies.
Both the treaty's entry into force and the ISP statement come amid a significant escalation of the global debate over GMOs, which have been promoted by the U.S. as a possible answer to world food problems. Genes that bolster drought resistance or resistance to certain kinds of pests, for example, can be implanted in crops that are common in Africa, according to the technology's boosters.
Last month the United States, which is home to the world's largest bio-techology companies, filed a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the European Union for its ban on GMO products.
In addition senior administration officials, including President Bush, have charged that the EU's opposition to GMOs is having disastrous consequences in poor nations, especially in Africa. Late last year, when a prolonged drought threatened the lives of millions of southern Africans, Washington shipped thousands of tons of GM maize, but several countries either rejected it or conditioned their acceptance on its being milled to eliminate the chances that seed corn could get through.
The EU ban, Bush charged, "has caused many African nations to avoid investing biotechnologies, for fear that their products will be shut out of European markets. European governments should join--not hinder--the great cause of ending hunger in Africa." U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick even charged that the EU's policies were "immoral."
But the EU and many developing countries have taken a much more conservative view of GMO technology. They claim that it has not been tested sufficiently or over enough time to determine its potential impacts on health and the environment. "We feel the need for more precautions than the Americans," the EU's trade commissioner Pascal Lamy said recently.
The Bush administration, however, insists that there is no scientific evidence that GMO products represent a risk to health or the environment, and that the real basis of the EU's opposition is its desire to protect local agriculture from U.S. competition.
The Biosafety Protocol generally supports the conservative approach of the EU. Under its provisions, countries that export GMOs will be required to provide detailed information to recipient countries before shipping the products to enable them to decide whether or not they should assume the risks.
The Protocol will also require all exporters of GMOs that are released into the environment to take measures to prevent their spread into surrounding areas in ways that could contaminate conventional species.
According to Friends of the Earth, the Protocol still has serious gaps, including a procedure for assessing liability for violations. The group wants mechanisms put in place to ensure that if GM crops do contaminate the environment, corporations or exporters responsible for the contamination will be held accountable.
In addition, the group noted, the international notification system that will take effect under the Protocol will not replace national legislation on the use of GMOs. In its view, countries should adopt legislation similar to the EU's until more scientific evidence can be collected and assessed.
The ISP report offers 13 reasons for banning GM crops, many of which directly contradict the Bush administration's contentions. GM crops, it says, have largely failed to deliver on the promise of sharp increases in yields and significant reductions in the need for herbicides and pesticides, while they present significant risks, such as the creation of "super-viruses" and super weeds.
It also rejects the argument that GM crops could be an answer to hunger in poor countries. "There is no pressing need for GM crops, as world agriculture is in overproduction and people go hungry because of poverty, not because of lack of GM seeds, when they are too poor to buy from the plenty around them," said Peter Rosset, an agricultural ecologist and co-director of the Oakland-based Institute for Food and Development Policy.
© 2003 OneWorld.net