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Government ministers from 119 countries are meeting in Montreal this week to
discuss the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety - a tool governing the
international trade of genetically-modified organisms. Its aim is
conservation of the world's biological diversity, June 2005 by Christian
Unfortunately, many of the objectives being pursued at this meeting are
misguided and unlikely to address the root causes of biodiversity
degradation. If this meeting is to be successful, and if the world's
biodiversity is to be properly protected, there needs to be a greater
recognition of the important role biotechnologies have to play. It may not
be intuitive, but it is a fact: agricultural technologies, including
biotechnologies, are necessary for the protection and enhancement of
biodiversity. By making agriculture more efficient and productive on limited
land areas, biotechnologies help feed and clothe an ever-growing world
population, while preventing destruction of new habitats and ecosystems.
Take as an example, no-till farming techniques. Made possible by the use of
biotech seeds, no-till farming means leaving land unplowed before planting a
crop. By maintaining a permanent layer of topsoil, not only does this
technology save time and labour, prevent erosion and reduce the loss of soil
moisture, but it also helps to preserve and enhance biodiversity by
providing a congenial environment for soil organisms, many bird species,
small mammals and reptiles.
Over the past decade, a group of farmers in Ghana have been using this
agricultural technique under a unique public-private partnership. Adoption
of no-till has led to higher yields both in normal and drier years, and it
is estimated that in the 10-year period from 1990 to 2000, more than 100,000
Ghanaian farmers have adopted no-till methods on about 45,000 hectares.
These farmers have understood what many others refuse to acknowledge -
biotechnology is not the enemy of sustainable agriculture and biodiversity
protection, but rather, is vital to it. At the Montreal meeting, it is
imperative that government delegates do not move further down a path that
places undue burdens on biotechnology.
Of particular concern is the development of an international liability plan
specifically for agricultural biotech products. Under the terms of this
proposal, the developers of these products - or indeed, those who use them -
could be held liable for any damage to the environment perceived to have
been caused by their use.
Setting aside the question of exactly who decides when environmental damage
has occurred, this not only places unfair restrictions on the developers and
users of these products, but misses the point of biodiversity conservation
by ignoring the effects that other technologies and human activities have on
biodiversity. Industry has, and will continue to be, responsible for its
products and technologies under legal systems that already exist nationally
and internationally. It is worth noting that the biotech industry is one of
the most carefully regulated industries in the world.
But industry goes even further, complementing regulation with comprehensive
stewardship programs throughout a product's lifecycle. From its discovery or
development through to its ultimate use, industry works to ensure these
technologies are used properly and safely. Placing too heavy a potential
liability burden on a single industry risks making that industry financially
untenable, even when there has never been recorded damage from its
A more sensible approach is to ensure that the proven benefits of
biotechnology are maximized and any risks are minimized. This is best
accomplished when decisions are based on sound science and risk, and are the
result of agreement between governments and communities and the users and
developers of biotechnology.
Implementation of the biosafety protocol should focus first on helping
countries build their own regulatory and scientific capacities, so that they
can properly use and control biotechnology within their borders. It should
avoid diverting resources from the protection of biodiversity to the
establishment of unnecessary, unworkable regulations. The overarching
principles and obligations set out in the biosafety protocol are commendable
and desired. Indeed, if properly implemented, the biosafety protocol has the
potential to represent a new global spirit to encourage innovation,
development and capacity-building for biotechnology, while also achieving
the goals of conservation, sustainable agriculture and equitable sharing of
the technology's benefits.
This planting season marks 10 years since the first biotech crop has been
commercially available to farmers. Since then, over a billion hectares have
been planted in some 17 countries, representing over half of the world's
population. And, it is noteworthy that the absolute growth in biotech crop
area over the last year was, for the first time, higher for developing
countries than for industrial countries. These figures represent an
international vote of confidence in the benefits of biotechnology for
consumers and farmers alike around the world.
We hope that decisions taken this week will ensure those who want to benefit
from this technology can continue to do so.
Christian Verschueren is director-general of CropLife International, a
global federation representing the plant-science industry and led by a group
of companies including BASF, Bayer CropScience, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont,
FMS, Monsanto, Sumitomo and Syngenta.
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