Series No. 7
Approach in Environmental Management
Issues Requiring Innovative Solutions >
B. Biotechnology and
the Biosafety Protocol
Biotechnology is an enabling technology that offers the potential for cleaner
and more efficient alternatives to many wasteful processes and polluting products,
including new techniques to treat solid and liquid wastes. There are numerous
examples of biotechnology applications which can dramatically improve quality
of life. Researchers are finding new drugs, new therapies and new ways of controlling
diseases. Energy derived from plants can substitute for non-renewable fossil
fuels. New high-yield crop varieties and those resistant to unfavourable weather
conditions and pests are revolutionizing agriculture.
Although biotechnology can provide many innovative environmental management
solutions, some biotechnology applications have significant social and environmental
implications. Genetic engineering, for example, enables genes and their properties
to be transferred from one organism, unconstrained by natural reproductive
barriers. This raises concerns about possible accidental releases of genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) and their safe containment, and in particular how
If society is to accept the consequences of these innovations, and the generalized
spread of GMOs, the inherent risks must be correctly evaluated. In the absence
of scientific certainty, common sense requires the application of the precautionary
principle, which holds that preventative measures should be taken when a serious
or potentially irreversible threat exists.
Responding to this challenge, in
January 2000, the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological
Diversity adopted a supplementary agreement to the Convention known as the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on. The Biosafety Protocol reflects growing
public concerns about the potential risks of biotechnology and GMOs, including
genetically altered food crops that have been modified for greater productivity
or nutritional value, or for resistance to pests or diseases. The Protocol
seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living
modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. It is the first binding
international agreement covering living modified organisms that cross national
borders because of trade or accidental releases.
The Biosafety Protocol establishes a procedure for ensuring that countries
are provided with the information necessary to make informed decisions before
agreeing to the import of such organisms into their territory. It enshrines
the “precautionary approach” as a principle of international environmental
law and puts environment on a par with trade-related issues in the international
area. The aim is to ensure that recipient countries have both the opportunity
and the capacity to assess risks involving the products of modern biotechnology.
The Protocol includes an International Register on Biosafety managed by UNEP,
which deals with the safe development, transfer and application of biotechnology.
Many developing countries lack the technical, financial, institutional and
human resources to address biosafety. The Biosafety Protocol has therefore
established a Biosafety Clearing-House to help countries build the necessary
capacity for assessing and managing risks, establishing adequate information
systems, and developing expert human resources in biotechnology. In this regard,
UNEP cooperates with the Biosafety Information Network and Advisory Service
(BINAS) of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).
An open dialogue on the positive and negative aspects of biotechnology is
needed in order to ensure that the objectives of sustainable development and
biological diversity are not compromised. Once a genetically engineered product
has been manufactured, it should be tested for possible human health effects
and environmental risks. Furthermore, effective strategies and operational
procedures are necessary to ensure that waste streams do not become a route
for accidental releases of genetically engineered organisms. Some feel that
until these questions are answered in a satisfactory way, the development of
biotechnology should be limited to the effective use of existing, naturally
occurring genetic material.
Underlying this is the reality that a wealth of genetic diversity already
exists throughout the world, especially in tropical areas such as rain forests.
For example, more than 90% of the world’s half million plant species
have never been assessed for their commercial value. Many pharmaceutical products
are derived from naturally occurring organisms. Also, wild plants are the source
of gums, oils, resins, dyes, tannins, vegetable fats and waxes, insecticides,
and many other compounds that can help in the manufacture of fibres, detergents,
starch and other products. In light of this, there needs to be a greater appreciation
of the fundamental role of traditional rural communities in managing biodiversity.
To protect traditional knowledge and foster responsible resource management,
policies should favour projects and initiatives that are more closely integrated
into economic and social life, in which local communities have a major part