Biosafety protocol

The adoption of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the first international agreement to regulate the transboundary movements of genetically engineered (GE) organisms, resulted from the mobilisation of the international community, including Greenpeace, to place precaution at the core of decision-making related to such movements. The Cartagena Protocol is a subsidiary agreement to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which was signed by 168 governments. The Protocol itself was agreed in Montreal in 2000 and came into force in 2003. To date, 166 countries have ratified it.

Greenpeace activists protest against shipments of GE feed

In essence, the Biosafety Protocol is an agreement designed to regulate the international trade, handling and use of any genetically engineered organism that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

For Greenpeace, the protocol is an important step in the protection of biodiversity. It explicitly recognizes a much needed precautionary approach to the environmental release of GE organisms. The precautionary principle is at the heart of this agreement. This means that countries have the right to ban or restrict the import and use of GE organisms when there is a lack of scientific knowledge or consensus regarding their safety.

The protocol requires that countries are informed and agree in advance to imports of GE crops. This is called the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA). Before countries are allowed to export any genetically engineered organisms destined for intentional introduction into the environment, they must first obtain the importing country's explicit consent.

However, there still remain important unresolved issues for the international community such as the amount of information required on transboundary shipments of GE crops. In case of damages resulting from release of GE crops, the international community has agreed to establish a liability and redress regime within four years.

The need of such a strong Biosafety Protocol is illustrated by the genetic contamination of maize in Mexico. This was the first case of genetic pollution in a centre of origin and diversity of a major food crop.

However the US, Argentina and Canada - the very countries that produce some 90 percent of GE crops in the world - have not ratified the Protocol, and are actively working to undermine it. They, along with several other pro-GE countries, are collectively known as the Miami Group.

In spite of the Miami Group's efforts, the Biosafety Protocol is a historic achievement. For the first time under international law, there is an explicit requirement that countries take precautionary measures to prevent GMOs from causing harm to biodiversity and human health.

Many essential biosafety measures have clearly been compromised in the efforts to reach agreement, but the Biosafety Protocol is a step in the right direction. The Protocol, as it stands, lays down minimum standards that must be adhered to. It is now up to all of those who care about the protection of our environment, food security and the preservation of our genetic resources to demand a more rigorous protocol that truly serves its original objectives

Further reading

Background documents for all Cartagena Protocol meetings on liability and redress negotiations