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United Nations Environment Programme
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Freshwater Management Series No. 7

Phytotechnologies

A Technical Approach in Environmental Management

II. Global 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 to:

assess the medium-term effects of GMOs on natural systems,

contain and control the dispersal of micro-organisms,
develop and apply national laws and international standards.

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.

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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 to play.

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