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ENVIRONMENT: Biosafety Protocol Alive, but Restricted

Mario Osava *

CURITIBA, Brazil, Mar 18 2006 (IPS) - The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety “is alive,” celebrated the delegates to the Third Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (MOP3), although there were complaints about and criticism of modifications to the final agreement reached Friday night.

“We made important concessions to accommodate legitimate concerns,” Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva said in her closing speech. However, she lamented that the Brazilian proposal which served as the basis for the negotiations and was widely accepted failed to achieve the necessary consensus and underwent a few changes.

The proposal referred to the main point under negotiation: article 18 of the Protocol, which refers to the handling, transport, packaging and identification of transgenic products.

The delegates of the 132 parties to the Protocol who met Monday through Friday in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba approved a requirement for clear labeling of cross-border shipments containing living modified organisms (LMOs) in products for direct use as food or feed, or for processing. Under the new agreement, products that have been clearly identified and separated as transgenics will have to carry the label “contains LMOs”.

But the delegates admitted the wording “may contain LMOs” in cases in which the presence of transgenics has not been documented and identified from origin.

The Brazilian proposal recommended a four-year transitional period to allow countries to gradually adopt mandatory labeling. But the negotiators expanded that period to six years, and inserted an element of uncertainty.

In four years, MOP5 will evaluate how well the labeling clause has been implemented, to help orient the final decision to be reached in 2012, at the MOP6.

In addition, as a result of insistence by Mexico, which delayed the conclusion of MOP3 by four hours, the clause will now state that the rules on labeling will not apply to transboundary transport between parties to the Protocol and non-parties.

Approval of this exception, which would appear to be obvious, since no country can impose the rules of an international treaty on a country that has not adhered to it, made it possible for a consensus to finally be reached.

For Mexico, the exception represents “the possibility of maintaining a series of trade agreements with other countries, and our commitments to the United States and Canada,” Marco Antonio Meraz, the head of the Mexican delegation, told IPS.

The aim of the compromise that Mexico successfully pressed for is to not hinder the country’s free trade agreements with other countries, he explained.

Since 1994, Canada, Mexico and the United States have been joined by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Under a treaty signed in October 2004 by the members of NAFTA, shipments containing up to five percent GM products can be identified as “non-genetically modified”, and shipments with “unintentional” contamination do not require identification or labeling.

The United States, the world’s biggest producer of transgenic products, is not a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol.

As a “megadiverse” country (in other words, a country with great biological diversity), Mexico has always supported the Cartagena Protocol, and is not opposed to the expression “contains GMOs”, as it has been accused of, but merely advocates more detailed information on transgenic products, said Meraz.

“Within the Protocol, there are other instruments that can help us document what has been planted and where,” like the Biosafety Clearing-House (BCH) information exchange mechanism, which is capable of compiling so much data that it renders the debate on “contains” or “may contain” LMOs “irrelevant,” argued Meraz.

Mexico’s demand contributed to the “weak agreement” reached by MOP3, which is based on new regulations that “fall short of fully protecting vulnerable developing countries from unidentified and potentially illegal GMO imports,” Greenpeace International said in a statement released Saturday.

There are no studies that conclusively demonstrate that transgenic products are harmless to the environment and human health. The Protocol, in effect since September 2003, is aimed at protecting biodiversity from the risks that may be posed by living organisms modified by means of biotechnology.

“Responsibility for this compromise decision falls squarely at the feet of a minority group of vested interests led by transnational agro-biotech firms, commodity traders, the U.S., Canada and Argentina (not members of the Protocol), who used countries like Mexico and Paraguay as stalking horses to hijack proceedings from the very start, turning crucial international negotiations on the issues of biodiversity, biosafety and human health into hard-nosed trade deals,” said Greenpeace.

In the corridors of the conference venue, people remarked that the “tequila effect” – a reference to Mexico’s national drink -, fomented by the United States, obstructed the meeting, making arduous negotiations and a compromise solution necessary.

Braulio Dias, director of conservation of biodiversity in Brazil’s Environment Ministry, told IPS that progress was made despite the reservation insisted on by Mexico, which did, however, “leave open a window” to future questioning of the Protocol, or to complaints before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) against countries that refuse to import transgenic products without the information required by the Protocol, which could be accused of trade discrimination.

“Disputes will not be avoided, but they will take place at a higher level from now on,” said Dias. Because the big importers of soy beans, like China and the European Union, have adopted the Protocol, that could counteract the pressure of major exporters of transgenic products – such as the United States, Canada and Argentina – that are not signatories to the treaty, he said.

The fact that only Brazil, among the world’s leading agricultural exporters, has adhered to the Cartagena Protocol is a negative factor for the country’s agribusiness sector. The additional costs of identifying and separating transgenic products will drive up prices, putting it at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with other exporter countries.

A compromise accord is better than stagnation of the Protocol, said Lim Li Ching, an expert on biosafety with the Third World Network. But, she noted, Article 24 already established the possibility of bilateral agreements between parties and non-parties on transboundary transportation, but in a manner that was “compatible with the objectives of the present Protocol.”

However, the alternative was a failure to approve rules for transboundary shipments of transgenics, which are key to “giving life” to the Protocol, by intervening in trade and creating conditions for moving ahead with national labeling of GM products, said delegates.

It was universally recognised that the Brazilian proposal was decisive in reaching a final agreement at the five-day conference. Brazil left behind the role of “villain”, which it had played at MOP2 last year in Montreal, where it defended the “may contain GMOs” wording and ended up isolated with New Zealand because they blocked a consensus.

But its new stance in favour of the “contains GMOs” label and a four-year adaptation period was not defined until Monday, the first day of the conference, and was not formally presented at MOP3 until Tuesday, thus holding up the negotiations.

This time it was Mexico and Paraguay that blocked a consensus until the 11th hour, without any clarification as to why they did not raise their objections earlier.

The negotiations were difficult, “with a heavy emotional component,” Antonio Patriota, the head of the Brazilian negotiators, commented to IPS. By setting forth its proposal, Brazil stopped being the “bad guy,” but it ran into resistance by “several Latin American countries,” he added.

The initial objections, which were based on a lack of technical and financial conditions for implementing mandatory LMO labeling and identification within a space of four years, were overcome by resolutions that ordered the secretariat of the Protocol to put a technical assistance plan into effect and to broaden financing of the biosafety system to poor countries, he noted.

Mexico then brought up the problem of its imports of transgenic corn from the United States, and its need to fulfill NAFTA accords. It was seeking “legal guarantees” against possible accusations of violating the Protocol, a demand that was satisfied by the exception on trade between parties and non-parties, said Patriota, who considered the additional phrase irrelevant.

* With additional reporting by Roberto Villar Belmonte.

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