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A new international law covering the conditions under which genetically modified (GM) organisms can be traded between countries is to come into force later this year, after the Pacific island of Palau last week became the 50th state to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Palau's move triggered a 90-day countdown before the protocol – which will regulate the impact on the environment and human health from trade in GM organisms – comes into legal force on 11 September.

Under the protocol, anyone exporting GM organisms, such as plants or fish, that are intended for release into the environment will need prior permission from the importing country. Permission will not be needed to export GM organisms intended for use directly as food for human consumption, as animal feed or in food processing.

The protocol lets countries refuse GM imports if these are forbidden under national laws – even if there is insufficient scientific information on the health and environmental impacts of GM organisms concerned to indicate that they are unsafe.

Similarly, GM imports can be refused under the protocol if there is a risk that an import would threaten local employment and businesses. And the protocol requires all GM organisms intended for human food, animal feed or food processing to be labelled before 2006.

“The Cartagena protocol recognises that biotechnology has an immense potential for improving human welfare, but that it could also pose potential risks to biodiversity and human health,” says Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

"This new regime promises to make the international trade in GM organisms more transparent, while introducing important safety measures that will meet the needs of consumers, industry and the environment for many decades to come.”

Many developing countries, member states of the European Union and environment and development organisations have welcomed the news of protocol’s imminent entry into force, arguing that the new law will be a forceful counterweight to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the body that sets global trade rules.

“Trade cannot be above safety,” says Tewolde Egziabher, general manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, who led the developing-country group during five years of negotiations on the protocol. “At least those countries that ratified it should view trade rules [of the WTO] and the Biosafety Protocol equally,” he added.

But the protocol’s relationship with WTO rules remains deeply controversial. During negotiations, the large grain-exporting countries – Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada and the US – successfully introduced language into the text specifying that the protocol will not affect a country’s rights and obligations under existing international agreements. Developing countries, however, inserted separate language saying that the protocol will not be “subordinate to other international agreements.”

The protocol is part of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, a global agreement to conserve the world’s dwindling biodiversity that was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. It covers organisms intended for use in a laboratory, in agriculture, fisheries, animal feed, and processed food. GM organisms used in the production of medicines for human use are exempt from the protocol.

The countries that have ratified the protocol will meet in Malaysia early next year to begin discussions on a common system for labelling GM foods. The Malaysia meeting will also address the protocol’s provision for compensation in the event of accidents during international transport of GM organisms. This must be agreed before 2008.