The Cartagena Protocol: the debate goes on

Could GM foods help to alleviate the suffering of famine-stricken communities in Africa? Copyright: WFP / Stephanie Savariaud

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Arnoldo Ventura, science advisor to the prime minister of Jamaica argued in an article last month that the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is wasteful and unnecessary (see Do we still need the Cartagena Protocol?).

Many SciDev.Net readers responded to his views on genetically modified (GM) crops, and we published a selection of their comments (see The Cartagena Protocol: a waste of time and money?).

Here, we publish a final collection of readers’ responses. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the individuals’ institutions.

Follow the links below to read each comment.

Remember, cigarettes were once considered safe

The Cartagena Protocol draws attention from bigger issues

Africa must seize the opportunity GM technology offers

Commercial farms, not poor smallholders, grow most GM crops


Tewolde Egziabher, general manager of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority


Arnoldo Ventura says the Cartagena Protocol is "based on a false premise that GM products could be as dangerous as radioactive materials or toxic chemicals". As the chief negotiator of the Like-Minded Group, a coalition of developing countries (apart from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay), I can tell you that my premise was, and still is, that GM products can be dangerous.

Genetic engineering can predispose organisms to deadly diseases as shown in rats in 2001, and make some products allergenic — as was shown last year with the introduction of a harmless gene from beans into peas. Yet Ventura says "there has been no evidence that GM organisms cause any serious ill effect on humans or nature".
Ventura seems convinced that because GM crops have been eaten in the United States and Canada for ten years, they are safe. But tobacco was smoked in these countries for much longer before its ill effects were identified. Ten years of unmonitored and unevaluated consumption of GM crops is proof neither of their threat nor their safety.

Ventura believes that the death of non-target species that results from growing GM crops such as ‘Bt’ corn does not constitute a serious impact on nature. I disagree. The United States has formally rejected the precautionary approach — a principle central to the Cartagena Protocol. But even the US scientific establishment believes the environmental impacts of GM plants should be regulated.

Ventura admits that: "caution must be tempered with experience and objective reality on a case- by -case basis." I agree. But how do you do this internationally without internationally agreed rules? How do you arrive at internationally agreed rules without international discussions?

He sees the discussions under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety as ruled by politics and emotion rather than science. I disagree again. Science, when used internationally, must interact with politics. Even when discussed by old friends, science, like any other body of facts, evokes emotions.

The aim of international meetings should, therefore, not be to test if people are immune to politics and devoid of emotion, but to enable them to communicate from their respective perspectives with the will to accommodate one another for a common goal. The Cartagena Protocol is proof of the will and of the common goal.

Ventura also states that building the capacity of poor countries should have priority over "spending large sums of money on endless meetings to ensure biosafety". But compared to the capacity-building needs of these countries, the money spent on protocol meetings is microscopic. This argument is a distraction.
I do not feel that a food is dangerous because it is GM. But something unknown is best assumed dangerous until proven otherwise. 

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Dennis J. Murphy, University of Glamorgan, Wales, United Kingdom


Much of the debate on GM technologies in developing countries misses key points.

One is that there is no robust evidence that GM technology creates crops that are any more dangerous to the environment or human food chain than varieties developed using other approaches.

Another is that GM crops are different in that they have been developed largely by a handful of private companies that have benefited from an exceptionally favourable patenting regime, giving them much better legal protection than for crops developed in other ways. Yet GM crops are also subject to very stringent regulations that can impede their entry into markets. This favours larger companies, and is a disincentive to overall market innovation.

Several other points also tend to be missed in the debate. The present generation of commercial GM crops has little to offer by way of solving the fundamental agricultural problems in developing countries. In the short to medium term, these countries would be better off spending their money on conventional breeding strategies and improving the economic and physical infrastructure of their agricultural sectors.

A key component of such a strategy should be reforming global trade, especially the subsidy/tariff regimes imposed by richer Northern countries on the poorer, but potentially more efficient, producers of the South. The Cartagena Protocol has its place, but it is largely a distraction to the wider picture of improving agriculture in developing countries.

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Bonto Faburay, head of institutional project development and application of biotechnology, International Trypanotolerance Centre, The Gambia


The enormous amounts of attention, time and resources that have been dedicated to discussions about implementing the Cartagena Protocol are unjustified — particularly for Africa.

GM technology offers a unique opportunity that African policymakers and scientists must seize to address the numerous production constraints affecting African agriculture, such as drought, pests and soil salinity.

Developed countries and some developing Asian countries have successfully had their green revolutions and become self-sufficient in food. But many African policymakers and, sadly, scientists still remain skeptical about GM crops despite an overwhelming lack of evidence of any harmful effects on human or animal health.

The criterion for accepting or rejecting any modern technology must be based on a measure of its potential benefits weighed against its potential risks.

I am confident that the GM foods consumed in North America for years would help to alleviate the suffering of famine-stricken communities in parts of Africa.

African governments and the UN should direct their energy away from endless discussions and towards pooling their resources to develop much-needed biosafety frameworks and create the necessary capacity, both human and technical, to monitor the potential risk of GM foods in Africa.

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Ahmed Dirie, life scientist and freelance writer, Cupertino, California, United States


Rather than asking whether the Cartagena Protocol is worthwhile, we should ask whether it hinders the adoption of GM crops. I think not, but we must consider where those crops are, the economic status of the farmers who grow them, which crops are planted, and who dominates the biotechnology industry. 

More than half of the land growing GM crops is in the United States. Apart from a couple of Latin American countries that grow mostly soybeans on a commercial scale, the developing world has a fraction of one per cent of the total area.

This shows that farmers of GM crops are commercial growers rather than poor smallholders. The developing countries are growing crops that have single genes with pesticide properties inserted, whereas Western countries are growing multi-gene crops with both pesticide and quality improvement traits.

It is important not to overlook the role of regulatory measures and rational activism when decide which GM crops, if any, to adopt.

If a country approves a GM product, its decision should be based on several factors, including the technology’s relevance to local needs, its risk to human health and the environment, and the country’s own socioeconomic conditions. Capacity building and regulatory measures are integral to technology transfer.

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