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  • The Cartagena Protocol: a waste of time and money?

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Arnoldo Ventura, science advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica, recently argued that a UN agreement intended to protect biodiversity from the potential threats posed by genetically modified (GM) organisms is wasteful and unnecessary (see Do we still need the Cartagena Protocol?).

Here, SciDev.Net readers from around the world respond to Ventura's criticism of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the individuals' institutions.

Follow the links below to read each comment.

Hubert Zandstra, emeritus director general, International Potato Center (CIP), Peru

Martin Livermore, consultant, Cambridge, United Kingdom

Kavitha Kuruganti, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, India

Merete Albrechtsen, Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Denmark

Josias Corrêa de Faria, National Rice and Beans Research Center, Brazil

Maria Scurrah, president, Grupo Yanapai, Peru

Gabriel Melchias, head of the Department of Biotechnology, St Joseph's College, Tiruchirappalli, India

Symon Mandala, senior science and technology officer, Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology, Malawi

Jaroslav Drobník, Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

David Garrido, biologist, Mexico


Hubert Zandstra, emeritus director general, International Potato Center (CIP), Peru

Too often, the environmental benefits of GM crops are ignored. Farmers growing them can substantially reduce their use of farm chemicals, whose threats to human health and the environment are increasingly well documented. Using conventional breeding approaches instead of GM technology to develop pest-resistant crops is not easy.

One area of continued concern is the impact of gene flow from GM crops to traditional varieties and wild relatives in regions where our major food crops originated. These dangers can be managed with practical protocols and constant vigilance.

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Martin Livermore, consultant, Cambridge, United Kingdom

We have to get our priorities right: why continue to spend more time and effort on an issue when earlier concerns about GM have been shown to be unjustified, and when developing countries could be concentrating on using their genetic resources for the benefit of their citizens? International agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol foster bureaucracy and processes that are hard to stop. There are better ways to use our energies and resources than waste them pursuing the sterile path of the biosafety protocol.

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Kavitha Kuruganti, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Secunderabad, India

While it is true that farmers and consumers in developing countries are yet to get involved in an informed debate on this matter, it is wrong to conclude that people are indifferent to it given that most countries have rejected GM technology.

Any new agricultural technology applied on a large scale in a developing country could have massive implications for poor farmers. Case-by-case assessments of GM technologies should therefore be broad, independent and scientifically robust, so that any negative effects are detected before it is too late. Research should include post-release monitoring when GM crops are first grown commercially. Such monitoring is almost non-existent and where it exists, it is extremely unscientific.

This is why there is a need to talk about strengthening biosafety regimes and why, more than ever, an international convention that regulates the movement of GM products across international borders is so relevant.

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Merete Albrechtsen, Danish Institute of Agricultural Sciences, Denmark

Far too many resources are spent on fruitless discussions and meaningless experiments regarding GM safety. These resources should be used to implement biotechnology for the benefit of everyone.

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Josias Corrêa de Faria, National Rice and Beans Research Center, Brazil

GM technology has been treated with the same kind of suspicion as nuclear weapons. While safety is important, there is no need for panic. After ten years of intensive research and growing GM crops, there is now strong evidence that genetic engineering is as safe as any genetic manipulation achieved through traditional crop breeding in the past. In Brazil, a lack of public understanding of GM technology is the main barrier to its acceptance.

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Maria Scurrah, president, Grupo Yanapai, Peru

Saying that 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grow GM crops hides the fact that most of these farmers are in Argentina, Canada and the United States. The really interesting country to watch is China, whose GM varieties are better suited to local conditions than are those of multinational corporations in other poor nations.

GM crops may make farming easier by reducing the impacts of weeds and insect pests, but this does not necessarily make farming better or more sustainable. Herbicides used with GM crops are poisonous to animals such as frogs that play a key role in agricultural ecosystems, so it is still important to monitor the technology's ecological impacts.

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Gabriel Melchias, head of the Department of Biotechnology, St Joseph's College, Tiruchirappalli, India

Argentina and the United States, both leading exporters of GM products, deny the Cartagena Protocol legitimacy by refusing to ratify it. But this does not undermine the agreement's validity or relevance. The lack of evidence of harm caused by GM crops does not imply that they are totally safe. If multinational companies are so sure there is no safety issue, why are they reluctant to label GM products as such?

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Symon Mandala, senior science and technology officer, Ministry of Industry, Science and Technology, Malawi

The Cartagena Protocol is both irrelevant and obsolete. Instead, resources must be channelled into building scientific capacity in developing countries. This would help them to make informed decisions on GM technology and to harness and safely manage modern biotechnology to meet the challenges of development.

We need a better, more harmonised approach with a clear direction and timeframe to resolve concerns about modern biotechnology. Policymakers should base their decisions based on scientific data. Unfortunately, the debate seems to be dominated by politicians and other groups who choose to ignore scientific evidence.

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Jaroslav Drobník, Faculty of Science, Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic

The 'biodiversity' rhetoric surrounding the Cartagena Protocol is just a populist cover for efforts to protect agricultural markets. Many non-GM crops developed using other methods pose even greater risks to biodiversity but we tolerate them because their benefits outweigh these risks. Salt tolerant rice varieties have been introduced in Asia, the centre of rice diversity. Mutant genes could spread to other varieties or wild relatives, potentially creating invasive, salt-tolerant weeds. There are clear risks to biodiversity but nobody is concerned because politicians take no interest in it.

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David Garrido, biologist, Mexico

If the Cartagena Protocol is the only tool we have to stop multinational companies from controlling the world's crops, it is still useful, even if it is dominated by politics and emotion.

There are alternatives to using GM crops to make poor nations less dependent on rich nations. Here in Mexico we grow many organic crops that need no chemical inputs and can be sold for good profits.

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