There was no shortage of weighty environmental discussion last month in Curitiba, Brazil, the site of two major international meetings on biosafety and biodiversity.
The lingering question, though, is how much was accomplished at the sessions—the Third Meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol (MOP-3) and the Eighth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-8).
Brazilian officials hosting the sessions say progress was made on core issues such as biopiracy and labeling of genetically modified organisms. Green groups, for their part, are dismissing those advances as insignificant, but they say they are pleased that conferees resisted agri-business pressure to endorse development and use of so-called terminator transgenic seeds and gene-altered trees.
MOP-3 brought together the 96 countries that ratified the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, which since taking effect in 2003 has regulated shipments among member countries of genetically modified plants and animals. Gathered in Curitiba March 13-17, delegates set a 2012 deadline for mandatory labeling of all transgenic products sent from one Cartagena Protocol member-country to another.
COP-8 drew representatives of the 188 nations that ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, a biodiversity-protection treaty in force since 1993. Convening in Curitiba March 20-31, participants:
- set a 2010 deadline for creating a regulatory system that will govern access to genetic resources and the sharing of benefits derived from their use;
- maintained a moratorium on the planting of so-called terminator seeds, which are bio-engineered to produce sterile plants;
- declined to recommend research or commercial planting of transgenic trees.
Both conferences pointed up clear differences. At COP-8, developed countries seeking access to genetic resources lined up against biodiversity-rich developing nations. Those pushing for access included European Union countries and a bloc of nations known as the Juscanz group—the United States, which signed but did not ratify the biodiversity convention, and Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which ratified it. Leading proponents of protection included Brazil and Indonesia.
In MOP-3, divisions over labeling of transgenics did not fall neatly along developed- and developing-nation lines. Treaty members Mexico, which imports transgenic corn from the United States, and Paraguay, which exports gene-altered soy, resisted a tighter labeling deadline under pressure from transgenic-farming powerhouses Argentina and the United States, both of which signed the biosafety protocol but never ratified it.
Tension over labeling
The labeling battle was particularly fierce—partly because compliance with MOP decisions is mandatory, whereas compliance with COP decisions is voluntary unless members agree otherwise. Initially, Brazil proposed a four-year labeling deadline. Mexico and Paraguay resisted, agreeing to a 2012 deadline on condition the labeling be restricted to shipments between protocol treaty members. This allows Mexico to continue importing three million metric tons of non-labeled transgenic corn annually from the United States after 2012 and Paraguay to continue sending non-labeled transgenic soy to non-member countries.
“I’m satisfied with [last month’s] progress,” says Rubens Nodari, genetic resources manager at Brazil’s Environment Ministry. “Groups that weren’t satisfied don’t understand how hard it is for COP or MOP meetings to reach consensus.”
Sezifredo Paz, a consultant for the Brazilian group Institute for Consumer Defense, calls the 2012 labeling deadline “absurdly long.” Says Paz: “MOP-3 members could have agreed to mandatory labeling in two years, giving them plenty of time to create the [transgenic and non-transgenic] segregation infrastructure. The delay means consumers will continue to be denied information about what they’re eating.”
Henry de Novion, of the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), a leading green group here, says the COP-8 biodiversity talks should have produced more progress, too. “Issues regarding the international system weren’t dealt with because of the rift between developed and developing countries over putting this system in place,” says de Novion. “Nothing was decided about issues such as whether the system will be mandatory or voluntary, or whether companies will pay for the use of [genetic] resources, which would likely be a small value, or pay royalties on the products derived from them such as cosmetics or drugs, which would likely be a large value.”
COP-8 progress claimed
But Eduardo Velez, who oversees biodiversity issues at Brazil’s Environment Ministry, disagrees. “Some progress was made at COP-8 regarding the international [genetic-resources regulatory] system, even if we had hoped to see more,” Velez says. He cites the 2010 deadline for creating such a system, and the decision to adopt as a framework for it a report produced in February by a convention working group.
COP-8 conferees also point to their stance on genetic seed use-restriction technologies (Gurts). Specifically, they cite their decision to maintain a moratorium on terminator seeds, which are gene-altered so the plants they produce are sterile and farmers must buy seeds every year rather than use seeds from one crop to plant the next. Says ISA’s de Novion: “I think they felt too little was known about the security of these seeds to authorize releasing them into the environment.”
COP-8 members also decided against endorsing field testing and commercial planting of gene-modified trees, delaying discussion of the issue until COP-9, which is slated to be held in Germany in 2008. In the absence of laws in this area, paper companies have begun researching how to produce pine and eucalyptus trees with more pulp and less lignin, a polymer that gives trees structural rigidity but requires chemical treatment to break down.
Says Sergio Leitão, public policy director of Greenpeace Brazil: “They took the cautious route because they realized that the health and environmental impacts of [transgenic] trees are only now beginning to be studied.”
- Michael Kepp