Living Modified Organisms, At Your Nearest Store

Over the last two decades, there has been rapid advancement in the development and application of 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 flow 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 assessments 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 and institutional capacities in biosafety, including through private-sector involvement and existing global, regional, subregional and national institutions and organizations.
With the assistance principally from the Global Environment Facility and other sources, more than 136 capacity-building projects have been initiated in different countries and regions in the past eight years. Those projects are assisting countries to build their scientific capacity to assess the risks from LMOs and to access and share relevant information, including guidance materials.

The Protocol promotes the exchange of information on and experiences with LMOs in an easy, open and timely manner through the Biosafety Clearing-House. Parties to the Protocol are required to provide information to the Clearing-House on their existing laws and regulations, the risk-assessment generated by their regulatory processes and any final decisions taken regarding the importation or release of LMOs. The Clearing-House also contains registries for LMOs, genes and organisms exchanged by Governments under the Protocol, a roster of biosafety experts, databases containing information on capacity-building activities, a list of international organizations active in biosafety, an information resource centre and a scientific bibliographic database.

In reaching a decision on whether to import an LMO, countries have the right to take into account -- consistent with their other international obligations -- socio-economic considerations arising from the impact of LMOs on biodiversity. These considerations are especially important in relation to the value of biological diversity for indigenous and local communities. In such cases, countries are encouraged to cooperate on research and information exchange on any socio-economic impacts.

Public awareness and participation are also crucial to ensure the safety of modern biotechnology. In this regard, the Protocol encourages Governments, civil society, UN agencies and other stakeholders to cooperate in promoting public awareness, education and participation concerning the safe transfer, handling and use of LMOs.

Over the past eight years since the adoption of the Protocol, considerable progress has been made towards its implementation. One of the biggest achievements has been the rapid support it has received from countries, and to date more than 150 have become parties to the Protocol. The speed at which it has been ratified speaks of the importance that the world community attaches to the need for international cooperation in biosafety.

At the global level, the governing body of the Protocol, the Conference of the Parties, which serves as the meeting of the parties to the Protocol, has adopted more than 60 decisions explaining the tools and mechanisms to facilitate the effective implementation of the Protocol. For example, the Biosafety Clearing-House has become fully operational and is facilitating increased exchange of information and experiences with LMOs. Other major achievements include the establishment of a compliance committee, the development of a capacity-building action plan and the adoption of detailed identification requirements in documentation accompanying LMO shipments. At the national level, more than 140 countries have introduced processes towards establishing legal and administrative frameworks, as well as operational mechanisms to implement their obligations.

The milestone achievements made under the Protocol have been a direct result of global cooperation and partnership.
 In 2008, countries celebrated these achievements during the fifth anniversary of the Protocol, whose theme, "The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety: Five years of global cooperation towards sustainable development", was selected to highlight the spirit of consensus and cooperation and underline the Protocol's contribution in the implementation of Agenda 21.
The Biosafety Protocol is a vital instrument that could help to ensure that modern biotechnology is developed and applied in an environmentally-friendly and socially responsible manner. It can also contribute to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, in particular the challenges to development, such as the current food crisis, poverty, climate change and HIV/AIDS, and at the same time prevent or minimize the potential risks of biotechnology to the environment and human health. As stated by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his recent congratulatory message on the fifth anniversary of the entry into force of the Protocol, it is "a major step forward in international efforts towards sustainable development, and will continue to have an important role to play in our efforts to implement Agenda 21 -- the global programme of action on sustainable development, adopted by the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro". All nations and citizens of the world should support and play an active role in the implementation of the Protocol and other relevant instruments in order to secure a sustainable future for our children.

For more information please visit the website of the Cartagena Protocol,