Do we still need the Cartagena Protocol?

Ventura says the Cartagena Protocol is no longer needed Copyright: Arnoldo Ventura

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Arnoldo Ventura argues that the international debate over the potential risks that GM crops pose to biodiversity is wasteful and unnecessary.

I was at last month’s meeting in Brazil of nations that are party to the Cartagena Protocol, and left with the distinct impression that there is something radically wrong with its approach.

As a concerned scientist, I have decided to express my misgivings in the hope that they will provoke a response, and initiate change.

My feeling is that the resources spent on negotiating the protocol and how to implement it would be better spent on more pressing global problems, such as boosting the developing world’s capacity to use science for development.

The Cartagena Protocol was created in 2000 to protect biodiversity from any potential harm posed by genetically modified (GM) organisms. It was considered a judicious addition to the UN biodiversity convention to help ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of GM organisms.

Caution at that point was quite understandable. But GM technology has progressed and is now so widely used — in different countries and under different conditions — that many people are indifferent to it, and are mainly interested in its benefits.

There has been no evidence that GM organisms cause any serious ill effects on humans or nature.

Indeed, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications reports that 8.5 million farmers in 21 countries grow GM crops, with poor farmers in developing countries making up 90 per cent of these growers.

This would surely not be the case, especially for the poor, if farmers were not benefiting from GM technology.

In addition, 300 million people in Canada and the United States have been eating GM foods for ten years with no apparent problems.

Wrong assumptions

Essentially, the Cartagena Protocol is rapidly losing its relevance. It was based on a false premise that GM products could be as dangerous as radioactive materials or toxic chemicals. People assumed that GM organisms were inherently more harmful than earlier genetic manipulations through conventional crop or livestock breeding, or by the march of nature.

After ten years of close scrutiny, testing and experimentation, this notion has largely been proven wrong. This is not to say that biotechnologies may not in some instances have unexpected consequences. Indeed, nothing is risk-free in agriculture, and decisions must therefore be based on the best knowledge available.

But experience suggests that GM organisms are less harmful than many invasive species that can dominate and upset ecosystems but do not attract the same attention.

No GM plant has been shown to overtly disrupt nearby ecosystems. However, some GM animals such as salmon might, because of their sheer size, feasibly threaten smaller non-GM varieties after escaping from sea farms.

To avoid panic concerning GM technology, caution must be tempered with experience and objective reality on a case-by-case basis. But politics and emotion, rather than science, seem to rule the protocol discussions.

Building capacity

We must remember that people have been altering the genes of plants and animals to improve their agricultural and food traits for thousands of years. Everything we eat is the result of such genetic modification.

Genetic engineering is faster than traditional selective breeding, and can give more precise outcomes because it allows individual genes or small groups of genes to be manipulated.

Instead of spending large sums of money on endless meetings to ensure biosafety under the Cartagena Protocol, we should build the capacity of poor countries to both identify their genetic resources and use them to meet development needs.

Building poor nations’ capacity to implement the Cartagena Protocol could, as a side effect, give such countries a degree of ‘bio-independence’, making them less dependent on rich nations for agricultural innovations.

But for this to happen the emphasis must be shifted from the fear of GM organisms to a better understanding and effective use of the technology to boost food supplies and deliver resources for value-added processes.

Remember the science

The Cartagena Protocol served its purpose at a time when there was overwhelming uncertainty about gene manipulation technologies. Today, this uncertainty has been drastically reduced. There is no longer a need for extended debates and regular meetings about the threat posed by GM organisms.

Emphasis should be shifted towards considering the possible negative effects of GM organisms on a case-by-case basis. This must be done in laboratories and research institutions, and not in debating forums. Diplomatic discussion is no substitute for scientific evidence.

This would have been obvious if science had not been forgotten. If the process is to continue, it must be infused with more concrete information to form the basis of decisions. We need to adjust people’s perceptions of risk so that fear, politics and emotions do not lead to ill-conceived and irrational laws and regulations.

It is reasonable to ask what would be lost if the protocol debates were terminated, or indeed if they were successfully concluded, Furthermore, what comes next? And what have the majority of the world’s people gained? A bigger question is whether the meetings can be revamped to make them more constructive.

A detailed cost benefit analysis is urgently needed to answer these burning questions.

Arnoldo Ventura is a former scientist and current special advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica. These comments are made in a personal capacity and are not intended to reflect the views of the Jamaican government.

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