Biosafety, Trade, and the Cartagena Protocol

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Case Study #9-6 of the Program: ''Food Policy For Developing Countries: The Role Of Government In The Global Food System''


Global production of genetically modified (GM) agricultural commodities has increased significantly in the past decade. Some people see GM crops as offering new hope in addressing some of the most serious problems that poor people in developing countries face, such as hunger and malnutrition. Others see them as creating unpredictable health and environmental problems and having negative economic repercussions. The proliferation of domestic biosafety measures has increasingly affected international trade in GM products and led to trade disputes. Although WTO member countries can make their own decisions regarding GM products at the national level, domestic legislation must be WTO-consistent to the extent of not adversely affecting international trade. In this respect, other legal documents, notably the multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), also play a role. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is the MEA that deals with transboundary movement of GM products. The interaction between the Protocol and the WTO rules adds challenges to an already complex scenario of international trade. A number of conflicts exist between the Protocol and the WTO rules. These conflicts boil down to the fundamental issue of which rules should prevail when trade disputes related to GM products arise. This issue lies at the heart of the perceived conflict between trade liberalization and environmental protection and was heatedly debated among different interest groups during the negotiation of the Protocol. The “Miami Group,” representing major agricultural exporters including the United States, holds the view that the WTO agreements are the only law applicable in resolving trade disputes over GM products. They fear that non-WTO agreements (such as the Protocol) may give an importing country excuses to limit trade in GM products. Potential loopholes in the Protocol could also allow a country to favor domestic GM production over imports, or GM product imports from some countries over others. The Miami Group thus favors the inclusion in the Protocol of a “savings clause,” which could, in effect, save provisions of the WTO agreements from being overcome by those of the Protocol. The European Union (EU) and most developing countries, on the other hand, argue that the Protocol should be invoked in defense against WTO claims. They support a comprehensive Protocol in light of the unknown effects of GM products on the environment and human health. Because food scandals in recent years have deeply shaken consumer trust in food safety, the EU in particular calls for a strong statement of the precautionary principle as provided in the Protocol. To resolve its potential conflicts with the WTO provisions, the Protocol contains a “savings clause,” which recognizes the importance of existing international agreements. Meanwhile, it calls for the mutually supportive functioning of trade and environmental agreements with a view to achieving sustainable development. The Protocol also provides different procedures and documentation requirements in dealing with different types of living modified organisms (LMOs). Your assignment is to recommend changes in either the Protocol or the WTO agreements that would mitigate the conflicts between GM commodity trade and environmental protection, taking into account the positions of the key stakeholder groups.

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12 pp.

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Cornell University Division of Nutritional Sciences

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Fuzhi Cheng (2007). Case Study #9-6, ''Biosafety, Trade, and the Cartagena Protocol''. In: Per Pinstrup-Andersen and Fuzhi Cheng (editors), ''Food Policy for Developing Countries: Case Studies.''12 pp.

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