Christine von Weizsaecker is a senior microbiologist based in Wuppertal, Germany and the vice-president of Ecoropa, the premier European environmental group. She is involved in the on-going negotiations related to the Biosafety Protocol. In an interview with Sumita Dasgupta , she spoke on the various issues that are related to biodiversity and specifically to genetically modified organisms
On the importance of the Biosafety Protocol to the developing countries:
The protocol is a legal mechanism being hammered out by the nations who have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd). It seeks to ensure safe transfer, handling and the use of living modified organism resulting from modern biotechnology that may have an adverse effect on conser-vation and sustainable use of biological diversity.
The developing countries are very rich in biodiversity, as the origins of most of the genetic resources are in these countries. Biotechnology com-panies often conduct field trials in the developing countries. The effects of their products on the environment and on human health can be detected only after a long period.
On what the protocol says:
This agreement would primarily oblige all "providing" parties (those providing or exporting the biotechnology pro-ducts) to ensure that the importing parties receive all available information on the use and safety regulations required in handling.
This issue conflicts very strongly with the confidentiality issue related to patents. If we are trying to protect all information related to patents, there can be no advanced information. On the other hand, a great deal of advanced infor-mation is needed to do a proper safety assessment. And it is the duty of the nation to protect it's citizens.
On whether any issue has been left unresolved:
There are two crucial topics on which no decision has been taken. These are liability clauses and the inclusion of socio-economic impacts on the importing country. The protocol must hold the exporting nation responsible for compensating the importing country in case any damage or accident occurs while using the organism.
So, as in all environmental issues, you have a comparison between short-term profits and long-term consequen-ces. Also, the text of the protocol says that importing countries will have to conduct an assessment within six weeks.
It is ridiculous to expect developing countries to have the expertise and the money to undertake this kind of research in such a short period of time.
On any alternative to ensure a fair deal to both the parties:
We at Ecoropa suggest that the money available in the private sector should be used. The World Trade Organisation (wto) requires a member to open up barriers for other countries to export. But every nation has to make sure that its people and its environment are safe. So what it can do is to ask exporters to take proper insurance and strict liabi-lity. This will mean that the insurance company will have to assess the risk and tell how expensive it is going to be. This is a precautionary approach against any country trying to reap the benefits within the next three years and then leaves importers to handle the mess.
This way, the biotechnology companies, too, will have an idea of how expensive this commodity is going to be. This is the most effective way of funding adequate biosafety research. As it will be done by the only branch of the private sector which has an appropriate interest in risk assessment. The insurance companies have to pay up if anything goes wrong. So they have a monetary interest in a scientifically appropriate research.
On the attitude of member nations towards the protocol:
All g -77 countries have made it clear that they want strict liability - socio-economic impact assessment. For the first time, a concerted effort is being made by the developing nations at the international level to go for strong environmental protection standards. It is also a good sign that the countries from the North, such as Norway and Austria, are showing positive signs to the interests of the South. They are getting strong support from the civil societies even in countries trying to stop and dilute the process like, Germany and the us. The us , of course, is the biggest obstacle, though it is not even a member of the cbd .
On the attitude of the US:
The us , at the national level, has one of the strongest sets of liability rules. The irony is that it is now going strongest against liability at the international level. Also, there is a paradox; genetic engineering lends itself as a sure-fire method of legally proving ownership. The us is rooting for private ownership. But at the same time it says that if some unexpected effects occur, then the "owner" should not be held responsible. So it is a case of "ownership we want but responsibility we do not want". This is unacceptable.
The us is also saying that no inter-national legal framework is in place till date that guarantees liability at the international level. First of all, this is not true. In the Basel Convention liability regime is provided. The governments of the North are basically being driven by the industry.
On the strategy of companies:
Biotechnology companies in the North are discouraging the protocol and are all out to prevent it from happening.
The us , which is not even a party to the cbd , sends the largest delegation to the biosafety negotiations. It includes legal experts from Monsanto, the us -based seed compacy. The seed bree-ders and chemical companies are also part of the troop. They lobby in all developing countries. Since there is so little expertise on this subject and they exude greatest assurance. They also succeed in convincing the governments.
On whether countries are not taking the risk assessment factor seriously:
They do not seem to believe their own promises and are taking all kinds of precautionary measures. Monsanto, for example, has split up the genetic engineering part of its company from the chemical branch that produces herbicides and medicine. This is because genetic engineering involves high-risk capital and the authorities do not want the rest of the company to sink with it.
On why the US government is refusing to sign the CBD:
By not signing the cbd , the us can import bioresources from all over the world and claim it as their own. It is also organising a huge flow of bio-diversity to its botanical gardens, zoological gardens and research centres. Europe consists of former colonial powers who stole the natural heritage of the tropical countries.
Plants from the former British colonies can be found in the botanical gardens of the uk. Similarly in Germany and the Nether-lands, one can find resources of African or Indonesian origin.
A us plant broker company, Phytera, decided to list, label and preserve the resources of other countries. They correctly thought that the bota-nical gardens in Europe - due to structural adjustments - have impoverished public sector and the research institutes are facing a major cash crunch.
Phytera approached the Frankfurt Botanical Garden (fbg) with a contract that ensured continuous supply of resources from the fbg banks to the company headquarters in the us. But only due to the timely intervention of Europa, they managed to stop this agreement from being finalised.
On the new world order which has to deal with WTO on the one hand and CBD on the other:
There is conflict on many scores. The international community cannot produce legislations in a total double bind. Choices have to be made. I think the most important aspect of modern society is separation of political powers into legislature, executive and juris-diction. Unfortunately, the wto does not separate anything. It only upholds market place.
It takes market as a law unto itself. If you look back to history, when the market place was being built up in Europe, there was some political structure and legislation which provided "market peace". Earlier, equity and justice had to be kept in place.
The wto is not even aware of a "market peace". In a way, I see the Biosafety Protocol as a minor contri-bution of governance and legal framework, a tool to maintain this "market peace".
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