EU – the South’s unreliable ally at Cartagena

EU – the South’s unreliable ally at Cartagena

by Gurdial Singh Nijar


COUNTRIES of the South converged on the historic heritage Colombian city of Cartagena for the final round of negotiations for a Biosafety Protocol confident that it would be finally concluded and adopted. Two and a half years of painstaking negotiations by 132 countries had produced a working draft of some 42 Articles to regulate the international movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Two weeks later the negotiations lay in shambles. The scheduled extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to adopt the protocol did not materialise. What happened?

US-led Miami Group

The primary reason was that the US-led Miami Group, a six-member coalition of the main GMO producers including Canada, Australia and three countries of the South – Argentina, Chile and Uruguay – blocked the inclusion in the protocol of any provision which they perceived could hamper, even obliquely, the free and unimpeded trade of GMOs and their derivative products.

The opposition by the Miami Group was expected. The US, and its biotechnology industry, had opposed the need for a protocol right from the outset. What was rather surprising, especially to the South, however, was the posture of the European Union (EU). The EU had started the Cartagena round on high moral ground. It declared itself ready to side with the South to ensure an effective protocol which would protect the South’s diversity-rich environment and peoples. It did nothing of the sort. In the final hours, the EU’s abandonment of the South was clear. It readily gave up key provisions crucial for protecting the environment and human health, in return for the deletion of the provision subordinating the protocol to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). That was a provision demanded by the Miami Group.

In the end, trade considerations and the looming trade war between the US and the EU dominated the negotiations and subsumed any safety concerns. ‘When two elephants fight,’ an old Eastern saying goes, ‘the mousedeer gets crushed.’ Thus were the South’s interests dismissed.

This emerged clearly in the negotiations on the scope of the protocol. Both the Miami Group and the EU proposed that GMOs destined for contained use and those that are pharmaceuticals for humans be excluded from the scope. And this despite the fact that the Jakarta Mandate for the protocol required the protocol to cover the transboundary movement of any GMO which may have an adverse effect on biodiversity, and was to cover ‘the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of GMOs’.

More importantly, the Miami Group wanted the Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) procedure to apply only to GMOs intended for direct release into the environment. Under this procedure, countries must ensure that its exporters give prior notification to importing countries to enable them to make a risk assessment of the GMO before approving its importation. The position of the South has always been that all GMOs, as well as their products, must necessarily be within the scope of the protocol and be subject to this prior notification procedure.


The EU at the outset was insistent that the first transboundary movement of all GMOs destined for placing on the market in their viable form should be subject to this AIA procedure. This would have included commodities such as soya bean, grains and maize.

But in the final hours the EU agreed with the Miami Group’s position that the AIA procedure be confined to the first transboundary movements of GMOs for intentional introduction into the environment of the party of import. Expressly excluded were GMOs intended for direct use as food, feed or for processing. For all other GMOs, it was left to countries to regulate by their domestic legislation, which option the countries have in any event.

The implications of accepting the proposal of the Miami Group and the EU are quite serious for the safety of the environment and human health. It would confine the protocol to the narrowest possible range of GMOs which have been shown to pose a potentially serious risk.

Thus would have been excluded the following from the purview of the AIA procedure:

* Genetically modified fruits, vegetables and tubers for human consumption (e.g. strawberries, potato, tomato, squash, lemon);

* Banana fruit genetically engineered as vaccine for human consumption;

* Transgenic propagating material for breeding purposes/greenhouse cultivation;

* Transgenic canola imported for processing (presently banned in France and Greece);

* Transgenic soya and maize for animal feed; and

* Genetically engineered micro-organism for use in yoghurt.


Transboundary Movement of: AIA:

Genetically modified micro-organisms destined
for the production of a food enzyme EXCLUDED
Art 4(2)(b)
Genetically modified micro-organisms destined
for the production of pharmaceuticals for humans EXCLUDED
Art 4(2)(b)
contained use
Banana fruit genetically modified as vaccine
for human consumption EXCLUDED
Art 4(2)(c)
Art 5(1) & (2)
Genetically modified micro-organism for use
in yoghurt EXCLUDED
Art 5(1) & (2)
Genetically modified micro-organism imported for
sewage treatment EXCLUDED
Art 4(2) &
definition of
contained use
Transgenic fish for aquaculture EXCLUDED
(As above)
Genetically modified fruits, vegetables and tubers
(eg strawberries, potato, tomato, squash, lemon) for
human consumption EXCLUDED
Art 5(1) & (2)
Transgenic propagating material for breeding
purposes/greenhouse cultivation1 EXCLUDED
Art 5(1) and
definition of
contained use
Transgenic canola imported for processing
(banned in France and Greece) EXCLUDED
Art 5(1) & (2)
Transgenic soya and maize for animal feed EXCLUDED
Art 5(1) & (2)
GMO “xyz” falling under proposed exemption
Art 5(4)
1 Often transgenic materials are not transferred for the purpose of propogation in the importing country but for use within breeding programmes which are carried out in the importing country. Breeding material transferred for this purpose would not fall under the AIA since it is not transferred for the purpose of “intentional introduction into the environment”.
Source: Prepared by Dan Leskian and Gurdial Singh Nijar, 1999

Additionally, the meeting of the parties may exempt from the AIA process particular GMOs.

Taken cumulatively, the upshot is that the protocol would cover only the smallest range of GMOs and leave unchecked the risks posed by the bulk of GMOs that would be sent to countries around the globe, as Table 1 makes clear.(Third World Resurgence No. 104/105, April/May 1999)

Gurdial Singh Nijar is a Malaysian lawyer and consultant to the Third World Network.

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