Cartagena and the North-South Divide over GMOs

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AS THE world's attention was focussed firmly on the Cancun World Trade Organisation summit last September 2003, an important international agreement quietly made its entry on the world stage, holding out immense implications for developing countries. The Cartagena Protocol on Bio-Safety, which aims to regulate trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), came into force on 11 September after five-year-long negotiations over trade advantages and disadvantages--intractable North-South issues that are set to continue to bedevil the Protocol's implementation.

This is highlighted most forcefully by the US move to take the European Union to the WTO dispute settlement mechanism over the EU's insistence that US exporters clearly label all GM food sold to Europe. One of America's main complaints is that Europe's stand makes Africa reject GM. The elephants that are Europe and the US thus fight, and the grass that is Africa gets trampled. The WTO Ministerial Meeting in Cancun, Mexico, which would have had direct or indirect implications on the case, collapsed on 14 September 2003, largely because the South, and especially Africa, refused to accommodate the elephants.

Is this a foretaste of the future of the implementation of the Bio-Safety Protocol as well? Why do I foresee future difficulties? The reasons are many, flowing chiefly from the substantive differences between the developing countries and the US over GMO regulation. The US, which is unlikely to be a party to the Protocol, and the sixty parties to the Protocol start from opposing premises. The US starts from the premise of 'Substantial Equivalence', which says GM crops are as safe as non-GM ones unless proved otherwise. The EU and the developing world support the 'Precautionary Principle' embodied in the Protocol which states that a GM crop is to be considered possibly risky unless proved to be safe. From these perceived differences flow implications for implementation.

The Cartagena Protocol requires a country to allow the importation of a GMO only after it has obtained all the necessary information about it and carried out a risk assessment to evaluate the likelihood of harm to human health, to agricultural systems, to its environment and to its socio-economic conditions. The country of import is first informed by the exporter or by the country of export of the intention to export the GMO. The country of import, after a risk assessment, then informs the exporter in writing whether or not it will allow the import.

In the case of GM commodities intended for food, feed or for processing, the intention to export is notified to all countries in one go through a computerised database system called the clearing-house. In this procedure, failure to communicate a decision to the country of export or to the clearing-house cannot be taken as an agreement to import. The failure might happen through lack of capacity and the Precautionary Principle would then imply that no exportation takes place. There are some exceptions to the procedure. A GMO that is merely transiting through a country is not subjected to the procedure. However, if a country considers any GMO as too dangerous to be allowed even transit, it has the right to register this fact at the clearing-house and prohibit its transiting. A GMO that is destined for contained use--under conditions from which it cannot escape into the open environment and cannot come into contact with humans or other forms of life--need not go through the procedure before importation. A GMO for use as a pharmaceutical for humans is subjected to the procedure unless there is another international law or a specified international organisation to govern its import and export authorisation. At the moment, there is no international law other than the Cartagena Protocol to govern the environmental impacts of GMOs. The World Health Organisation is responsible only for the safety to human health of pharmaceuticals--GMOs or otherwise--and not for their environmental impact. …