Biosafety: Implementing the Cartagena Protocol

Lab worker in a lab for genetic modifications in Berlin

Agricultural ap­pli­ca­tions of gene­tic en­ginee­ring have raised con­si­der­able hopes about the pro­spects of fee­ding the world's po­pu­lation and deve­lo­ping new medi­ci­nes. At the same time, the intro­duction of gene­tical­ly modi­fied orga­nisms (GMOs) can have far-rea­ching eco­lo­gical, socio-economic and socio-cultural conse­quen­ces. To avoid such ad­verse ef­fects, the po­ten­tial risks need to be asses­sed before GMOs are put into circulation.

In 2000, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was agreed under the auspices of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD); it came into force in September 2003. The Protocol regulates international trade in genetically modified or­ga­nisms. It marks the first time that pro­tec­ting health and the environ­ment has been put above eco­no­mic con­sidera­tions. This means that coun­tries can pro­hi­bit the im­port of ge­ne­ti­cal­ly modi­fied orga­nisms if they fear a threat to bio­lo­gical di­ver­sity or human health.

Possible impacts of the use of genetic engineering in partner countries

The uncontrolled release and proliferation of alien genes in a na­tu­ral gene pool risks dis­pla­cing tra­di­tional crops, di­minish­ing species di­ver­sity, and even threa­ten­ing the se­cu­rity of the food supply in the long term. What is more, it is im­pos­sible to be certain that ge­ne­tically mo­di­fied or­ga­nisms will not be toxic to insects or wild animals. Such im­pacts have the po­ten­tial to cause lasting dis­rup­tion to the na­tu­ral ba­lance of a ha­bi­tat, re­sul­ting in the loss of entire bio­topes.

For small farmers, the use of genetically modified seed is also risky for other reasons: the seed is expensive to buy, and growing it requires special know­ledge. In addition, the patenting of seed can create new dependencies: farmers who use it are prohibited from the traditional practice of propagating it them­sel­ves. Instead, they have to buy a new batch each year from the seed producer.

Another problem is that products produced on an industrial scale using GMOs could displace traditionally produced agricultural pro­ducts from developing countries. This would deprive agricultural producers in poor countries of important sources of income.

Germany's engagement: averting risks

Biosafety is an important area of Germany's development policy engagement in the field of environmental protection and resource conservation.

Many of Germany's partner countries in development cooperation lack both the necessary expertise and the institutions to ensure biological safety. Under the German Biosafety Capacity Building Initiative, Germany is supporting these countries in building additional capa­ci­ties in this area. Partners are assisted in implementing the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety at the national level and in carrying out inde­pen­dent assessments of the risks of genetic engineering.

The measures include, for example, projects which foster public par­ti­ci­pa­tion in the bio­safe­ty process and trai­ning pro­gram­mes on the im­ple­men­tation of the Protocol. So far, country-specific measures have been carried out in Algeria, Peru, Colombia, Burkina Faso and China. The Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) is also cooperating with the African Union (AU) at the regional level to build capacity for biosafety.

However, the bulk of support for the implementation of the Carta­gena Protocol is currently provided through multilateral projects financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

For the future, the aim is that developing countries should be able to as­sess for them­selves the risks posed by trans­boun­dary trade in gene­ti­cally modi­fied orga­nisms. The Carta­gena Protocol gives its par­ties the right to impose import bans, even in the ab­sence of de­fini­tive proof that material poses threats, there­by en­shri­ning the pre­cau­tio­nary prin­ciple. In order to monitor inter­natio­nal trade in gene­tically modified material, a special infor­mation and com­muni­cation system has been developed – the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH).

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