CBD’s Terminator Technology moratorium reaffirmed, but weakened

CBD’s Terminator Technology moratorium reaffirmed, but weakened

Although the CBD Working Group meeting in Granada reaffirmed the UN moratorium on the controversial Terminator Technology, other new recommendations adopted at the meeting may serve to open the door to its later approval.

PARTIES to the Convention on Biological Diversity clashed repeatedly over the issue of Genetic Use Restriction Technologies (GURTs) when it was discussed at the fourth meeting of the Ad Hoc Open-ended Inter-sessional Working Group on Article 8(j). The Working Group met in Granada, Spain from 23-27 January.
The 8(j) Working Group reaffirmed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)’s existing ‘de facto’ moratorium on GURTs. However, this was weakened by the inclusion of language in another paragraph, at the insistence of Australia, that further research and studies on potential impacts and other aspects of GURTs be undertaken on a case-by-case risk assessment basis.

GURTs are also popularly known as Terminator Technologies. Terminato Technology is a genetic engineering technique that renders seeds sterile at harvest, thus preventing farmers from saving and reusing seed, a practice carried out by millions of farmers, particularly in developing countries. Apart from these socioeconomic impacts, there are also serious threats posed to agrobiodiversity and biodiversity.

NGOs present at the meeting condemned the decision as a betrayal of the rights of indigenous people and of farmers, and vowed to continue the fight to ban Terminator Technology.

In 2000, the CBD adopted Decision V/5 (Agricultural biological diversity) section III, paragraph 23, which recommends that Parties not approve GURTs for field-testing or commercial use, until transparent scientific assessments of its impacts are made and its socioeconomic impacts validated, thereby establishing a ‘de facto’ moratorium on GURTs.

Working Group recommendation

On the final day of its Granada meeting, the Working Group finalised its recommendation on GURTs, which will be forwarded to the eighth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP8) to the CBD, to be held in Curitiba, Brazil in March 2006.

One of the most contentious issues in the recommendation had to do with the inclusion of language recommending case-by-case risk assessments for further research and studies on potential impacts and other aspects of GURTs.
The reference to case-by-case risk assessments could undermine the ‘de facto’ moratorium, as it may open the door for the countries pushing to field-test and commercialise GURTs, to do so at their national level.

However, the reference to case-by-case assessments has been subjected to a qualification, through the inclusion of a footnote. The EU, in the final plenary meeting, explained the details. The footnote reads: ‘This is meant to be with respect to different variations within different categories of GURTs technologies.’

When the Philippines asked for clarification on what this meant, Australia said it was ‘to enable greater clarity, to make it quite clear’ what these assessments would be all about.

An NGO delegate representing the Federation of German Scientists had a different view, saying these assessments would be ‘further down the road’, and in the meanwhile this will lead to national-level decision-making on GURTs, a scenario which may not be good, as most governments do not have national biosafety regulations to deal with these issues.

Norway also spoke about its grave concern about this point but given the qualification, it believed it could go along with such a footnote. Uganda also voiced its support for the footnote.

The Chair of the Working Group, Ambassador Jose Cuenca of Spain, instructed the Rapporteur to take into account these observations in his final report of the meeting. It is however unclear whether the footnote qualification will be sufficient to roll back the danger posed by including the reference to case-by-case risk assessments for GURTs.

In any case, it is clear that the ‘de facto’ moratorium on field-testing and commercialisation of GURTs remains. Furthermore, countries could, as sovereign nations, still enact national legislation that bans GURTs.

Australia had won the inclusion of the wording on case-by-case risk assessment by using it as a bargaining chip, in return for dropping its initial insistence during the drafting group discussions that reference to the precautionary approach be removed in the preambular paragraph. NGOs reported that this was done with a US government official consulting at the Australian negotiator’s side.

During those discussions, the Philippines, the EU and Norway opposed Australia’s proposal, as it would have meant that any decisions relating to GURTs would not be guided by the precautionary principle, one of the cornerstones of the Rio Declaration as well as the CBD. The drafting group eventually came to a consensus when it was agreed that the references to Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration, as requested by New Zealand, would be couched in language that will also refer to the Preamble of the CBD.

Other contentious issues

Discussions on the draft recommendation saw many other clashes between Parties. One disputed item touched on whether the socioeconomic impacts of GURTs were a mix of both positive and negative. Australia, together with the US on the floor, and a pro-industry scientific group, wanted this, along with the word ‘aspects’, which most of the delegations opposed.

The delegates eventually agreed to remove both the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ and settled on having both the words ‘impacts’ and ‘aspects’ in the text.
References to the ‘potential benefits such as increasing productivity’ were also removed without much debate after this agreement.

However, tempers flared when Australia wanted to replace the word ‘reaffirms’ with either ‘notes’ or ‘recalls’, referring to the 2000 decision of CBD COP5, which many observers see as a decision that imposed the ‘de facto’ moratorium on GURTs.
Australia, helped along by Canada and New Zealand, claimed that there was nothing wrong with the words ‘notes’ or ‘recalls’, though some observers said that it is absurd for a COP to take note of its own decision, as if it is not aware that it has made such a decision in the first place. Eventually, the majority prevailed, and the Working Group reaffirmed the previous CBD decision.

Another difficult item centred on the invitation for CBD Parties, governments and relevant organisations to respect the rights of farmers to save and use seeds. Canada suggested that some references to its national legislation be made to reflect its situation, but the Philippines opposed it as the impression made was that Canada was trying to bring in language from the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, of which Farmers’ Rights in its Article 9 is still made subject to national legislation.

Canada clarified that they are not doing so but the Secretariat inserted language that made it appear that such farmers’ rights should be made in accordance with national legislation, leading some indigenous leaders in the room to shout, in their own language, that the formulation was simply unacceptable.

Finally, it was agreed to keep intact, as a general principle, the right of farmers and local and indigenous communities to save, use and exchange their seeds, and to just take into account Canada’s situation in a separate clause, within the same paragraph.
Another contentious item referred to technology transfer but got mixed up in the sharp verbal exchanges between the Philippines and Australia on whether capacity-building relating to GURTs would include the enablement of farmers and local and indigenous communities to implement Decision V/5, the 2000 COP decision which set the ‘de facto’ moratorium on GURTs.

Australia strongly opposed the word ‘implement’, saying this simply could not be done at the local level. The Philippines asserted that was precisely what needs to be done, as most farmers and indigenous and local communities simply have no idea about these international discussions and the capacity-building efforts should apprise them that there is a moratorium at the international level and that they should be helped to act, in accordance with their customary rules and practices, to take steps to put this moratorium into effect within their communities and territories.

The EU mediated between the two and the word ‘implement’ was changed to ‘application’. Thus, there is language in the final recommendation that capacity-building efforts would help farmers and local and indigenous communities apply the moratorium.


Meanwhile, the ETC Group, a leading NGO involved in the Terminator Technology issue, and part of the international Ban Terminator Campaign, condemned the decision of the Working Group. ‘Indigenous peoples were betrayed and farmers’ rights trampled when the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian governments – guided by the US government and a brazen cabal of corporate gene giants – took a major step to undermine the existing moratorium on Terminator technology (i.e., plants that are genetically modified to produce sterile seeds at harvest),’ said the Group.

‘Although the meeting "reaffirmed" the fragile UN moratorium on Terminator, new recommendations adopted in Granada now may be used to block the CBD’s precautionary approach when governments meet in March. Not only did the meeting fail to condemn Terminator as immoral and anti-farmer, Australia and the United States falsely claimed that Terminator, which creates sterility, would "increase productivity".’

‘The new reference to case-by-case assessment is shocking and extremely damaging because it suggests that national regulatory review of Terminator is possible – it undermines the CBD moratorium, opening the door to Terminator approval,’ warned Hope Shand of the ETC Group.

The ETC Group said that despite the unscrupulous push by a handful of rich countries to put industry profits before farmers’ rights, the majority of governments at the meeting remain solidly opposed to Terminator Technology and committed to the existing moratorium. It reported that during the meeting, the African Group, Egypt and the Philippines made impassioned speeches about the potentially devastating impacts of Terminator on biodiversity and food security and the need for national bans, while Norway, Pakistan, Kenya and the European Union defended the existing moratorium. India and Brazil both referred to their national laws prohibiting genetic seed sterilisation technology. Despite this strong opposition to Terminator, Australia’s extreme position and its determination to block consensus left governments little room to negotiate.

‘Despite public pledges not to develop Terminator technology, gene giants Syngenta and Monsanto lobbied aggressively on Terminator throughout the week,’ said the ETC Group, adding that others present included Delta and Pine Land, the world’s largest cotton seed company, which is now testing Terminator plants in greenhouses, and CropLife International, a pesticide lobby group.
Outside the UN meeting, Spanish people of all ages gathered to remind governments of the strong public resistance to Terminator Technology.

Ecologistas en Accion organised public events, street protests and educational street displays throughout the week as part of the international Ban Terminator Campaign.
‘When news of the Granada outcome reached the plenary of the World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, there were howls of anger from thousands of assembled farmers,’ said the ETC Group. It added that the Ban Terminator Campaign will work with groups and movements across the world to strengthen the global resistance to stop Terminator, with the fight moving to the COP8 meeting in Brazil in March – TWN

(THIRD WORLD RESURGENCE #186 (February 2006))


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