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BIODIVERSITY: GE Tree Dispute Exposes Biosafety Inequities

Stephen Leahy

BONN, May 29 2008 (IPS) - An intense North-South debate over genetically engineered trees has sidetracked delegates at a U.N. conference on biodiversity here: African nations want a global moratorium, while a few rich countries led by Canada say it should be up to individual countries to regulate.

While 168 nations that are part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) debate the issue, a new two-year U.N.-funded study warns that developing countries simply don't have the capacity to manage or monitor biotechnology.

"Africa doesn't have the technical and scientific capacity to fully debate let alone enforce rules around biosafety of biotechnology," said the study's co-author, Sam Johnston of the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UN-IAS) in Tokyo.

"Genetic contamination by GE plants is a huge issue and it's increasing," Johnston told IPS in Bonn.

Under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, industrialised countries like Canada have a legal commitment to provide funding to help poorer countries build their capacity to regulate and enforce biosafety standards for products of biotechnology, but simply haven't provided anything close to the necessary funding, he said.

"Countries importing GE crops can't even do the most basic biosafety," Johnston said.

Countries that have ratified the CBD are obligated to protect global biodiversity – the variety of life that sustains humanity. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety regulates the transboundary movements of GE organisms and is a subsidiary agreement to the CBD.

The U.N.-IAS study involved a comprehensive assessment of developing countries' technical, policy and enforcement capacities. It found deficiencies in more than 100 countries in Africa, Central Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean that "are so pervasive and broad that there is no effective international system of biosafety at the moment".

The United States, Argentina and Canada lobbied successfully against a more rigourous Cartagena Protocol on the promise of building self-regulatory capacity in developing countries. "They have totally failed to deliver on their promise," Johnston said.

Meanwhile, the biofuels boom has sparked concern that research on genetically engineering trees for use as biofuels is ramping up, with field trials in the U.S., Canada, China, New Zealand and elsewhere. Before the Bonn conference began, 46 environmental groups from two dozen countries called on the government delegates to accept a proposal to suspend all releases of GE trees into the environment "due to their extreme ecological and social threats".

Trees have been genetically engineered to resist pesticides and insects, to grow more quickly and have less lignin so they are easier to convert into biofuels. None are commercially available as yet. Scientists have long warned that trees are not like food crops, which have significant genetic differences, for example, between domestic wheat and wild grassland species.

The risk of interbreeding between GE trees and normal trees is high. Pollen from trees can be transported more than 1,000 kilometres, according to some research. Moreover, faster growing, low-lignin trees resistant to common pests could easily become an invasive species and dominate natural forests.

"Genetically engineered trees threaten to contaminate native forests around the world with unnatural and destructive traits such as the ability to kill insects, or have reduced lignin – the substance that enables a tree to stand up straight and withstand disease," said Anne Petermann, co-director of the Global Justice Ecology Project, in a release.

Members of the CBD previously agreed that countries ought to use the precautionary approach with regard to genetically engineered trees. In Bonn, all of the African countries and some in Europe have proposed that the CBD recommend a moratorium. Even though Canada has a small GE tree research programme, it opposes the moratorium, insisting that countries can use their own national regulations to deal with any biosafety or contamination issues.

"Canada has boldly ignored the African moratorium proposal and ignored our concerns here in Canada," Lucy Sharratt, coordinator of the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network, said in an interview in Bonn.

"The six African environment ministers who addressed the opening high-level plenary Wednesday affirmed the need for a GE tree moratorium," Sharratt said.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his environment minister also addressed the plenary but did not defend Canada's position. Indeed, they said nothing about GE trees.

Africa's concerns are "very valid", says Johnston. Simply plowing ahead with GE trees shows the proponents of biotechnology have not learned from past mistakes that created public opposition and concern over the technology in the first place, he said, adding: "Society will not trust or tolerate a new technology without effective safety standards and enforcement."

Biotechnology is mortgaging its future by undermining safety standards for short-term gain, Johnston said, and this imperils any potential benefits the technology may have for the food crisis or for future biofuels.

"Governments and biotech corporations have handled biotechnology extremely badly and they still haven't learned," he said.

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