Agrochemical multinationals hail them as a panacea for everything from world hunger to pesticide pollution. Environmental organizations dismiss them as "Frankenfoods" which poison consumers and destroy the world's ecosystems. The Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is attempting to help developing countries weigh up the pros and cons for themselves. The argument is about genetically modified (GM) crops.
In mid-January, UNEP kicked off a three-year project that will support up to 100 developing countries to prepare for the entry into force of the UN Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (see Box 1. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety). It will also help these countries put into practice the principles of risk assessment for GM foods announced in March by a task force of the Codex Alimentarius, a world reference body for food safety (see Box 2. UN agrees principles for GM food risk analysis).
Box 1. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
Adopted in January 2000 the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the
first international, legally binding environmental treaty. The Protocol
seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks from
genetically modified organisms (GMO) by regulating all transboundary
movements of GMOs. The Protocol also establishes a so-called advance
informed agreement procedure, which requires GMO-exporting countries
to provide all pertinent information about the GMOs in question so
that the importing countries can make an informed decision as to
whether to accept the shipment or not. As one of its key elements
the Protocol is to set up a biosafety clearing house, an Internet
database containing all necessary-information about any given GMO
such as movements and transports of GMOs, release documents and risk
assessments. So far more than 100 countries have signed the Protocol
but only 11 have ratified it. As soon as 50 countries have ratified
it, the Cartagena Protocol will enter into force worldwide.
Box 2. UN agrees principles for GM food risk analysis
After two years of deliberations, a UN task force on GM foods reached
its final conclusions this March: a set of principles proposing that
such foods be subjected to extensive pre-market safety assessments,
combined with methods to overcome uncertainties in risk assessment,
for example by monitoring potential effects after a product has been
Investigations should identify new or altered hazards relevant to human
health, especially in relation to key nutrients and potential
allergies, said the Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from
Biotechnology in early March in Yokohama, Japan.
This Task Force of the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission--a world
reference body for food safety--says that their principles should be
seen as providing an overall framework for evaluating the safety and
nutritional aspects of GM foods in any country.
The principles also provide guidance on analytical methods and other
tools to be used in risk management. FAO and WHO say that the task
force "reached a very important new agreement concerning the tracing
of GM products for the purpose of facilitating withdrawal from the
market when a risk to human health has been identified."
The task force also adopted detailed requirements for assessing the
safety of GM plants, including tests for allergenicity, and recommended
that efforts be made to improve the capability of regulatory
authorities--particularly in developing countries--to assess and manage
GM foods. This is where the UNEP biosafety project will be helpful
The environment "is different everywhere, and that's why GM crops have to be tested locally" says Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, the lead author of last year's Human Development Report, issued annually by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which advocated a cautious application of biotechnology as a means to reduce world poverty. …