Debate on GMOs triggered by passion

Updated: Nov 27 2006, 05:30am hrs
At a time when India is making global headlines and is well positioned to emerge as a major player in the global biotech sector, the progress in biotechnology comes with its own share of perceived risks to biodiversity, food security, health and economy. To allay the fears, 135 countries support the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international legal agreement under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It is the only international law that deals specifically with respect to genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary, UN Convention on Biological Diversity. While developing countries need to have laws and regulations on biosafety, India is fast emerging as a role model for others in framing their regulatory framework, he informs Sudhir Chowdhary. Excerpts:

Dont you feel biotechnology continues to be mired in controversy

Its not unusual. As you are aware, modern biotechnology is one of the new knowledge-intensive technologies that have the potential to make a valuable contribution to the improvement of the socio-economic welfare of mankind, particularly in the field of agriculture, medicine, industrial development and environmental protection. Indeed, some countries, including India, have rapidly embraced this technology.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications 2005 report on the global status of commercialised biotech/GM crops, the total agricultural area coverage for approved GM crops grew to 222 million acres in 2005, up from 200 million acres in 2004, marking an annual growth rate of 11%. In the coming years, biotechnology is likely to become one of the key driving forces of our daily livesfrom the food we eat, the medicine we use, to the fuels that power our cars.

At the same time, let me reiterate that the technology could also have potential adverse effects on biodiversity and human health if not properly regulated, managed and controlled.

What is being done to ensure proper regulation at a global level

We have the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety in place. It is the first international regulatory framework for biosafety. The Protocol was adopted in January 2000 and entered into force from September 11, 2003. As such, it sets out a comprehensive regulatory system for ensuring the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) with a clear focus on trans-boundary movement.

But, is it really effective

The Protocol has received remarkable support and steady progress is being made in its implementation. The number of parties to the Protocol continues to grow, and currently stands at 135. This is a clear sign of the confidence of the global community places in it.

What practical steps have been taken to ensure the practical implementation of this global initiative

The governing body of the Protocol the Conference of the Parties to the Convention serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Protocol (COP-MOP)has adopted several decisions, which focus on operational modalities, tools, mechanisms and work programmes, including the Biosafety Clearing House, an action plan on capacity, building, the coordination mechanism for capacity-building activities, among others.

So, what progress has been made in implementing the Protocol

Thanks to the Global Environment Facility (GEF), progress has been made in some areas, particularly with respect to the development of the national biosafety frameworks. Through this, more than 130 countries have completed or are about to complete developing their National Biosafety Frameworks; at least 12 countries, including India, are in the process of implementing their frameworks with support provided through UNEP, UNDP and the World Bank.

What has been the role played by the Global Environment Facility Is it a funding agency

It is currently the largest donor for biosafety capacity-building activities. According to the recent survey carried out by the Institute of Advanced Studies of the United Nations University, the GEF has, over the last five years, invested close to $60 million in biosafety capacity-building projects, including the India-World Bank/GEF Project on capacity building in biosafety. This accounts for more than 40% of the total bilateral and multilateral funding assistance for biosafety. It is also important to note than of the $3.13 billion for the fourth GEF replenishment over the next four years, more than $80 million will be spent on biosafety projects.

Do you feel India has an effective biosafety framework

India has developed a robust regulatory framework for GMOs. It is also advanced when it comes to biosafety. As a result, it will show the way to other countries when it comes to conserving nature and making use of its gifts sustainably and with equity. With its enabling policy environment, India is committed to achieving the 2010 biodiversity target. It will also emerge as a role model for other countries in framing their regulatory framework. And not just India, we expect cooperation from other countries to have an international regime on access and benefit-sharing by 2010, wherein the concerns of developing countries are adequately addressed.

Why do you think Indian farmers are wary of adopting GM crops

I know there is a lot of anxiety with regard to GMOs here. This, however, is normal. When you deal with life, you cannot be impartial. You have to be intensely involved. The debate on GMOs and LMOs is triggered by passion and emotion.