Socio-Economic Considerations in Biosafety

Socio-Economic Considerations in Biosafety

By Elizabeth Bravo, Acción Ecológica

Topics related to socio-economic considerations in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety are currently not priorities, in spite of the importance that these topics could have in the application of the Protocol.

This paper briefly analyzes some of the socio-economic considerations that should be accounted for, and the international legal instruments that could facilitate this.


Art. 26 of the Cartagena Protocol touches on socio-economic considerations related to trans-border movements of LMOs/GMOs.

This article stipulates:

a. The Parties, in reaching a decision on import under this Protocol or under its domestic measures implementing the Protocol, may take into account, consistent with their international obligations, socio-economic considerations arising from the impact of living modified organisms on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, especially with regard to the value of biological diversity to indigenous and local communities.

b. The Parties are encouraged to cooperate on research and information exchange on any socio economic impacts of living modified organisms, especially on indigenous and local communities.


Traditional agroecological systems are the result of complex processes of co-evolution between social systems and the natural environment. The genetic resources of traditional crops are not a collection of genes. They include systems of ecological interactions, selection and management guided by systems of practice and knowledge that have permitted them to adapt to heterogeneous ecosystems.

The existence of this biological diversity, especially in centers of origin, are important for maintaining and improving agricultural crops, especially in Latin America. In the Andean and Mesoamerican regions, millions of hectares of agricultural land are being cultivated in traditional ways and are important sources of food for local populations.

The loss of traditional varieties means a loss of cultural diversity, since many of these varieties are connected with specific traditional practices, while others are used in religious ceremonies and other cultural practices.



This is the first international instrument that relates environmental topics with indigenous peoples.

It recognizes the aspirations of indigenous peoples to assume control of their own ways of life and economic development (Introduction).

Governments should respect the special importance of cultures and spiritual values of these populations and their relation to the land and their territories, especially collective aspects of this relation (Art. 13.1).

They should especially protect the natural resources that exist on their territories (Art. 15.1).

This includes the right of indigenous peoples to participate in the utilization, administration and conservation of these resources (Art. 15.1).

It calls for elaboration of studies to evaluate the social, spiritual, cultural and environmental incidence of activities developed in these areas (Art. 7.3).


On November 3rd, 2001, at an FAO conference, The International Treaty On Plant Genetic Resources For Food And Agriculture was approved. The International Treaty was the fruit of seven years of negotiations with the objective of revising the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, and adapts it to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Farmers’ Rights

This recognizes the enormous contribution of local communities, indigenous groups and farmers all over the world, in particular those who are found in centers of origin and diversity of cultivated plants, to the conservation and development of plant genetic resources that constitute the food and agriculture base around the globe.

The Treaty recognizes the following rights:
• The protection of traditional knowledge of interest regarding plant genetic resources for agriculture and food.
• The right to equally participate in the distribution of benefits that are derived from the use of plant genetic resources of food and agriculture.
• The right to participate in the adoption of decisions, at the national level, regarding topics related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.


Article 10 protects the traditional use of biological resources, conforming to traditional practices that are compatible with the demands of conservation and sustainable use.

Article 8j stipulates that knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities will be protected. Traditional knowledge should be pertinent to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.


a. Impact on Traditional Crops

Genetic contamination could occur from transgenic crops to traditional varieties, which would take on undesired characteristics.

b. Impact on Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities

It is important to take into account economic and ritual value that certain varieties, for example corn, have for some indigenous groups. Transgenic varieties can have a negative impact on traditional agriculture systems, and therefore on systems of knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities.

c. Impact on Food Sovereignty

Transgenic crops are designed for export. Transnational production companies need huge markets at a global scale in order to recuperate investments in each new variety. This goes against the food sovereignty of countries.

d. Transgenics Lead to Loss of Genetic Diversity

In intensive agriculture, promoted by transgenics, a few varieties tend to substitute varieties improved by conventional processes as well as varieties developed by local farmers.

e. Transgenics Mean a New Risk Factor for Agriculture

Transgenic crops reinforce the tendency of modern agriculture to homogenize the varieties used. These varieties are selected based on only a few characteristics, such as a favorable response to fertilizers, resistance to disease, and resistance to herbicides.

This means that genetic variability is reduced, and therefore the capacity of the crop to respond to unplanned changes in climate (floods, frost, drought) is also reduced. Crops become extremely susceptible and production has more risks to face.

f. Agriculture Based on GMOs Increases the Use of Inputs and Therefore Costs

Herbicide resistance was created in order to increase the use of herbicides, not diminish it. The technology allows the application of a wide range of herbicides in periods of harvest and in quantities that previously were impossible.

Use of Agro-Chemicals in RR Soy Crops in Argentina: In 1991/1992, a million liters of glyphosate was used. In 1998/1999 this reached almost 60 million liters. Today, 70 million liters are used (an average of 2 liters of glyphosate per inhabitant).

g. Transnational Companies Benefit From Transgenics

We are living through a moment of strong concentration of transnational companies. They are increasing in size (but diminishing in quantity) and their earnings are increasing every day. Through the subsidies that they receive and the free trade agreements that protect them, they are making small and medium producers disappear.

The transgenic seed industry is in the hands of only a few transnational companies. Monsanto alone (bought by the pharmaceutical company Pharmacia) controlled 94% of the total area of land planted with transgenic crops in the year 2000 in the entire world.

Transgenic seeds have intellectual property rights. A peasant farmer must pay for each bag of seeds and for each hectare planted there is an additional cost. Farmers must continue to buy seeds every year. They cannot store, exchange or sell the seeds. If the company discovers that the farmer is doing so, he/she could face legal repercussions. This is a violation of farmers’ rights.

h. Food Aid

Transgenic food surpluses are distributed in poor countries through food aid programs. These countries receive what others will not accept, not even for animal feed.

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