The International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)


International Trade in Genetically Modified Food Products-Reconciling the Biosafety Protocols with the WTO Agreements


Norman W. Thorson, University of Nebraska





Early this year negotiators in Montreal concluded work on a set of Biosafety Protocols that were drafted as an adjunct to the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity. The Biosafety Protocols purport to give nations the right to refuse shipments of genetically modified organisms on the grounds that they might cause harm to human health or the environment. The agreement has been widely praised by environmentalists as being the latest international environmental accord to embody the "precautionary principal." With respect to agricultural products, the agreement makes it clear that genetically modified organisms are not the same as conventionally grown crops.

Debate over the wisdom of bioengineered products has been spirited. Proponents argue that genetically modified organisms promise increased yields and lower per unit production costs that can help alleviate world hunger. Moreover, proponents argue that genetic modification has a potential to diminish negative environmental and energy impacts of production agriculture by reducing the need for fertilizer, herbicide and pesticide use. Similarly, modifying organisms so they can thrive under hostile climatic conditions such as short growing seasons or low water supplies could make agricultural production more feasible in food short areas of the globe. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment could lead to catastrophic environmental events. Among the concerns raised are the risks of allergenic or toxic reactions to genetically modified organisms, evolution of super resistant pests or weeds that have the potential to seriously impact global biological diversity, and even possible alteration of global weather patterns. The ethical and economic implications of genetic manipulation also are hotly debated. Persuasive arguments exist on both sides of the issue.

The lack of international consensus, the infancy of the agricultural biotech industry, and the concomitant level of uncertainty regarding the degree of the various risks perceived, would seem to support application of the "precautionary principle" on a sovereign nation basis. On the other hand, the critical importance of international agricultural trade, the difficulty in certifying products as free of genetic manipulation, and the long history of economic protectionism for domestic agriculture, suggest that it might be difficult to separate legitimate precaution from illegitimate protectionism.

The Biosafety Protocols seem to indicate that nations are free to set their own standards for what constitutes an acceptable level of risk of exposure to bioengineered products. At the same time, WTO agreements recognize that ostensible health and safety measures may be used as disguised trade barriers that would thwart the goals of the WTO. Precisely how the Biosafety Protocols relate to the WTO agreements is an issue that is not clearly addressed in the Biosafety Protocols. I propose to examine the question of whether the Biosafety Protocols and the WTO Agreements are "mutually supportive" as stated in the Biosafety Protocols or whether they are hopelessly in conflict, and explore the economic, environmental and trade implications of my conclusion..


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