The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is Holding Technological Innovations Hostage
In 2000, negotiators adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB). The CPB was a supplementary agreement to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity coming into effect in 2003. Its purpose was to manage international trade in GMOs. While intended to ensure biological diversity the CPB has become a rigid barrier stifling innovation and trade.
[T]he objective of this Protocol is to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on transboundary movements.
The CPB takes a contentious position on risk, allowing countries to use socio-economic considerations as part of their risk assessment process, including issues like labour impacts, trade impacts and ethical issues. As you may recall from Whose Social License is it Anyway? and The Change in How Risk is Assessed, socio-economic risk is not easily assessed due to the nature of the data and limited models.
The lack of models and data create barriers for CPB countries to commercialization beneficial agriculture technologies. CPB countries are bound by socio-economic requirements and are unable to complete risk assessments, thereby ceasing technology approvals (i.e., eggplant in India & banana in Uganda). In many developing countries it’s a challenge to conduct science-based risk assessments, let alone socio-economic assessments.
Socio-economic assessments often raise questions that are impossible to quantify. For example, if a new GM crop reduces the demands for labour, is this a good or bad thing? I think reducing the length of time a woman spends bent over hoeing a field in the hot sun is a good thing. However, those opposed to GM crops argue the technology pushes the poor people to move to large cities to seek employment, which they view as a bad thing. Such assumptions ignore the opportunity labour movement creates through better training and new job skills, offering improved abilities to increase household incomes.
What is the solution you may ask? Good question, I’m glad you asked.
Developing countries should withdraw from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety if they expect to have any hope to domestically approve new crop varieties and reduce food insecurity.
I know, that sounds dramatic, but it’s the easiest solution to move forward. The CPB has demonstrated an inability to manage and has acted as a mechanism to prevent trade in GMO products. If governments desire new biotechnologies for their farmers as a contribution to increasing food security, they are prevented from doing so by their obligations to the CPB. CPB obligations have spilled over to international agricultural research efforts, removing most options to commercialize new crop varieties.
The intent of the CPB was to provide environmental sustainability in developing countries. Is CPB really doing this or furthering food insecurity in developing countries? Complying with CPB protocols is holding agriculture innovations hostage. To free themselves from this situation, developing countries need to withdraw from the CPB.