Living Modified Organisms, at Your Nearest Store

By Tamale, Erie; Nilsson, Ulrika | UN Chronicle, June-September 2008 | Go to article overview
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Living Modified Organisms, at Your Nearest Store


Tamale, Erie, Nilsson, Ulrika, UN Chronicle


Over the last two decades, there has been rapid advancement in the development and application modern biotechnology--a technology that involves taking genetic material from one organism and inserting it into another to give it a desired characteristic. This new technology is complex and arouses much debate.

On the one hand, modern biotechnology promises to contribute to sustainable development and generate benefits to humankind, such as producing drought-tolerant crops that could result in increased agricultural productivity in regions suffering from harsh weather conditions. The technology also promises to produce high-yielding or disease-resistant varieties of crops, which can help increase the production levels of food supplies.

On the other hand, products resulting from biotechnology may have adverse effects on biological diversity and human health, or have negative socio-economic impacts. For instance, concerns have been raised over the possibility of the How of genes from genetically modified plants to their wild relatives, such as through cross-pollination, leading to undesirable consequences. It is also feared that certain genetically modified plants which contain, for example, insect resistant traits, could harm not only the targeted insect pests but also other non-targeted species.

In 1992, delegates at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) acknowledged that, while modern biotechnology might have great potential to make a significant contribution to improve human well-being and sustainable development, it must be developed and used with adequate safety measures. This resulted in the adoption in January 2000 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, as a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOS) resulting from modern biotechnology.

The Protocol promotes the precautionary approach, which reaffirms Principle 15 of the UN Rio Declaration, stating that, "where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." The concept of such a precautionary approach has also been applied in other international agreements and, in the case of the Protocol, it means that Governments may decide, on the basis of precaution, not to permit a particular LMO to be imported across its borders.

The Cartagena Protocol sets a number of rules, procedures and measures to minimize the potential adverse effects of LMOs on biological diversity, taking into account the risks to human health. Prior to their first import of LMOs intended for introduction into the environment, parties to the Protocol are required to carry out case-by-case risk assessment in order to identify potential risks of those organisms. They are also required to adopt measures and strategies to regulate, manage and control any risks identified in the assessment, and to prevent unintentional transboundary movements of LMOs.

Countries must also take measures to ensure that LMOs moved across borders are handled, packaged and transported in a safe manner. Shipments of these organisms must be accompanied by documentation that clearly identifies them. Specific documentation requirements depend on the intended use of the LMO, whether for direct use as food, feed or processing, e.g., bulk shipments of cotton or soy; those destined for contained use; or those for intentional introduction into the environment, such as live fish or seeds.

To better implement the above rules and procedures, parties to the Protocol and other stakeholders need to have the necessary human resources and institutional capacities. Currently, many developing countries and economies in transition lack the capacity to effectively implement biosafety measures. In this regard, the Protocol requires parties to cooperate and assist each other, for example, in promoting scientific and technical training and enhancing technological scientific and technical training and enhancing technological and institutional capacities in biosafety, including through private-sector involvement and existing global, regional, sub-regional and national institutions and organizations.

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