Biodiversity or Biotrade?

Competing goals of free trade and environmental protection puts the much-awaited Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety indefinitely on hold

Published: Wednesday 31 March 1999

Biodiversity or Biotrade?

-- representatives from over 138 countries around the world met at Cartagena, Colombia, in mid-February to end years of discussions on an international legal framework to ensure biosafety in the transboundary movements of genetically engineered organisms ( gmo s).

The much-awaited Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was, however, not to be. In a clearly calculated move, a group of six grain-exporting countries, the Miami group -- Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, usa and Uruguay -- sabotaged years of incremental and hard won progress on the issue. Trade and industry interests triumphed, causing frustrated delegates from the developing world to point out that the negotiations were on "biotrade" not biosafety. With some justification, four days after the scheduled end of the conference, bleary-eyed delegates were still behind closed doors discussing the remaining "bones" of contention -- elements that could seriously affect free trade. They emerged at 4 am on the fifth day only to declare that "no consensus was reached," a statement that cleverly hid the blatant subordination of the environmental interest to the economic.

The Convention on Biological Diversity, adopted at Rio in 1992, authorised parties to consider the development of a protocol "in the field of safe transfer, use and handling of living modified organisms ( lmo s) that may have an adverse effect on biodiversity". Since the landmark 1992 convention, the international community has considered the issue of biosafety at a series of high-level meetings.
The main players

The main players were the Miami group, the European Union ( eu ) and the "like-minded". The Miami group, named after a meeting held in the city, represents one end of the spectrum. Concerned with trade implications of various provisions in the protocol, they maintained inflexible positions on most issues and came out as a distinct interest-based alliance in Cartagena. Argentina, Chile and Uruguay stepped out of the ranks of the g- 77/China (the conventional developing country alliance) and aligned with Australia, Canada and the us . A strong and mutually supportive relationship existed between the Miami group and the industry lobby, represented at Cartagena by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation ( bio ). Indeed, documents circulated by bio read like the Miami group's position paper.

The "like-minded," a large coalition of developing nations came into existence after the exit of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay from the g -77. The "like-minded" represent the other end of the spectrum. Fearing a loss of biodiversity and income from the replacement of traditional farming methods by gmo s, they argued for a strong and all-encompassing biosafety protocol. The "like-minded" found support in the environmental non-governmental organisations ( ngo s), represented at Cartagena by the World Wide Fund for Nature, Third World Network and Greenpeace.

The eu , due to growing public disquiet in Europe over gmo s, took the middle path on most issues and, in the final days of the negotiation, aligned itself with the "like-minded".

The key issues
The Miami group sought to limit the scope of the protocol to lmo s destined for deliberate release into the environment and exclude products of lmo s and lmo -based agricultural commodities. They feared that, in its capacity to create paperwork requirements, extension of the protocol to products of lmo s and lmo -based agricultural commodities would seriously hamper and delay trade in such products. So insistent were they in limiting the scope of the protocol that delegates could be heard joking that the result, once the various exclusions were incorporated, would be a "Cartagena Protocol on Animal Vaccine".

The Miami group also strongly supported the inclusion of a provision in the protocol that would, in effect, elevate World Trade Organisation ( wto ) rules above those of the biosafety protocol. They were motivated by concerns that the biosafety protocol could be used as a protectionist device by importing countries to favour domestic lmo s over foreign ones. A majority of the nations, however, sought to delete this provision. They believed that a provision privileging other "international agreements" (read wto ) could handicap governments seeking to protect their consumers from questionable lmo s.

Though the trade interest driving the process revealed itself in all its complexity and magnitude only toward the very end, it cropped up and engendered polarised positions even earlier in the process. The discussions on the need to address "non-discrimination"; insert the precautionary principle; and take into account socio-economic considerations were also shaped by the trade agenda.

A motley collection of developed countries ensured that a provision obliging parties to "non-discrimination" between imported and domestically produced lmo s -- one of the pillars of the wto -- made its way into the draft protocol. This, if retained, will be a significant trade-win for it would commit even non-parties to the wto , such as China, to the principle of non-discrimination with regard to lmo s.

Similarly, the discussions on the precautionary principle, that would enable countries to adopt measures under the protocol in the face of scientific uncertainty, implicated the trade concern. The Miami group, concerned that the precautionary principle could be used to legitimise the creation of trade barriers, resisted its inclusion. There is a history to this concern. An earlier eu import ban on synthetic hormone-treated beef was challenged in the wto by the us and Canada. The eu justified its ban on the basis of precaution and the us, its opposition, on the basis of scientific uncertainty. Without rejecting the precautionary principle, the wto Dispute Panel upheld the us position and required the eu to produce scientific evidence to justify its ban. This decision left the issue open for debate and the eu and us chose Cartagena as one of their battlegrounds (see box: Trouble in paradise ).

Another contentious terrain at Cartagena was a provision enabling countries to take socio-economic considerations into account while taking decisions. As the social and economic welfare of societies in developing countries is inextricably linked to the maintenance of biodiversity, most developing countries were keen to see this provision included. India's stance on terminator technology, genetic engineering that renders seed sterile, is a case in point. Terminator technology, in forcing farmers to buy new seed every year impoverishes and disempowers them. The Indian government, fearful of the socio-economic consequences of such technology, recently introduced a complete ban on the entry of Terminator genes and technology into India. Most developed countries, however, concerned that countries could arbitrarily use ambiguous "socio-economic considerations" to undermine scientifically-credible risk assessments and create trade barriers, advocated a rider in the article obliging parties to take import decisions only if they were consistent with their international obligations. Such a provision would, in effect, subject import decisions based on socio-economic considerations to wto requirements.

Lavanya Rajamani is a doctoral student at Oxford University, and project director, Global Environment and Trade Study, Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

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