Montreal delegates approve biosafety protocol language

Published April 1, 2000

At the recent U.N.-sponsored biotechnology meeting in Montreal, delegates from 130 countries approved language for a “biosafety protocol” that would allow countries to stop or restrict imports of genetically modified agricultural products. The agreement covers food, seeds, and animal feed; it does not cover pharmaceutical products derived from genetically modified organisms.

Unlike international trade agreements, which require that actions taken to block imports be based on “sufficient scientific evidence” of harm, the Cartagena Protocol looks more like an environmental agreement. For the first time in international trade, member countries will be permitted to block imports based on the “precautionary principle”–that is, without first demonstrating actual harm.

Critics of the proposed new protocol focused on the precautionary principle. In an unsigned editorial, the Wall Street Journal noted the principle was “invoked to trump scientific evidence and move directly to banning things they [environmentalists] don’t like—biotech, wireless technology, hydrocarbon emissions. In other words, science got in their way, so they shoved it aside.”

Although adopted at a meeting held in Montreal, the document has been dubbed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. After several negotiating meetings beginning in 1996, the biosafety talks were suspended in February 1999 in Cartagena, Colombia, when delegates were unable to finalize the text of a protocol. January’s meeting in Montreal was officially deemed the Resumed First Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

While the language of the Cartagena Protocol was approved in Montreal, no country has actually signed the document. The agreed text will be opened for signature at the headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi from May 15-26, on the occasion of the Fifth Session of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 5). The protocol will go into effect after 50 countries have signed on.

Since the United States Senate has never ratified the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity, the U.S. has no legal obligation to comply with the Cartagena Protocol (essentially a document aimed at implementing decisions of the Convention). Nevertheless, the Clinton-Gore administration plans to comply with Cartagena.

Frank Loy, undersecretary of state for global affairs, called the treaty a “major improvement” over last year’s draft, rejected in Cartagena. Loy noted that “failure to reach agreement would have exacerbated tensions over the issue.”

Farmers, students, and anti-trade environmentalists–members of Third World Network, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth, among others–camped on the lawn of the meeting hall. “Here in Montreal, protesters were camped out for two days, bearing candles and butterfly wings,” reported Kristin Dawkins, an observer from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy based in Minneapolis. Noted the Montreal Gazette, “The activists won the propaganda war with clever words and images. The serious-looking guys in suits never stood a chance.”

Why so much concern over genetically modified organisms? Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, explained recently, “Opposition frequently accompanies technological innovation. Technologies that eventually win acceptance do so after demonstrating a clear benefit to society with few risks.”

“Since 1985,” Lugar continued, “nearly 100 different biotechnology drugs have been approved for use. Every American will come into contact with the health care system and is likely to have a new procedure or drug explained. By contrast, a significant majority of Americans know little of commercial agriculture, pesticide use, food processing or distribution. The few agricultural biotechnology products that have been commercialized advertise benefits tangible primarily to farmers. As a result, agricultural biotechnology has struggled while medical biotechnology soars.”

Lugar counts himself among those convinced of biotechnology’s value: “Biotechnology can increase agricultural efficiency, reduce the use of chemical pesticides, and improve food’s nutritional value.”

The Cartagena Protocol deliberately leaves vague its relationship to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and which rules take precedence. European delegates to the Montreal convention said they feel the WTO will not be able to rule against members who follow the protocol; at the same time, protocol advocates say it is not intended to affect the rights and obligations of governments under any existing international agreements.


For more information


on the U.N. Conference on Biodiversity and the meetings of its parties, subsidiary bodies, working groups, etc., visit the Web site of the conference’s Clearing House Mechanism at