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Fact Sheet: U.S. State Department on Biosafety Protocol

Agricultural Biotechnology

Biotechnology is often used interchangeably with genetic engineering, the process used to select specific genes from one organism (plant, animal, or microbe) and introduce them into another organisms to confer desirable traits.

Biotechnology allows breeders to produce new plants varieties and animals more quickly than through traditional breeding, and provides new tools for addressing both opportunities and constraints for agriculture.

Biotechnology advocates believe that agricultural biotechnology promises to benefit human health, the environment, and economic development. Regarding human health, biotechnology has already proven invaluable in pharmaceutical development and will serve as a useful tool in the pursuit of global food security and adequate nutrition. Biotechnology has the potential to contribute to environmental conservation by reducing the need for habitat destruction and the use of harmful farming practices such as tilling and agrochemical use. Biotechnology also offers developers as well as farmers increased economic gains, as new products will translate into new markets, and reduced input costs.

Critics of agricultural biotechnology are concerned that the new technology creates uncertainties about long-term effects on human health and the environment, and will contribute to the control that multinational corporations have over the supply of agricultural seeds.

We believe biotechnology provides agriculture unique opportunities for increasing the quantity, reliability and nutritional quality of the food supply, and for addressing some existing agricultural health (worker exposure) and environmental problems.

With regard to improved crop varieties, we also believe biotechnology has made possible the availability of food that is produced with reduced use of pesticides and herbicides, resistance to pathogens, tolerance of environmental fluctuations, and increased yields. Food products with higher levels of vitamins or reduced saturated fats are also in development.

The Biosafety Protocol

The Biosafety Protocol is being negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity to address the potential threats to biodiversity posed by living, genetically modified organisms (LMOs). Upon entry into force it will regulate trade and other transboundary movement of products modified by genetic engineering.

Final negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol took place January 24-29 in Montreal, Canada. Negotiators representing 140 countries worked into the early morning hours of January 29 to craft a Biosafety Protocol that officials praised as going a long way to protect the Earth's biological diversity. Environmental ministers from 50 countries joined the last two days of tough negotiations to push through the final agreement.

The talks in Montreal followed the suspension of talks last February in Cartagena, Colombia, when officials were unable to reach agreement on a protocol due to major differences between the negotiating groups over key issues.

The protocol, which must be ratified by the governments involved before it takes effect, represents the culmination of more than five years of work to come up with a comprehensive set of rules balancing the twin goals of trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and protection of the world's ecosystems.

The Biosafety Protocol creates an international framework that addresses the environmental impact of bioengineered products; sets up a biosafety clearinghouse that will help countries share technical data on new engineered products and give importing countries needed information on GMO products before they enter their markets; and reaffirms the right of each country to regulate the import of bioengineered products, subject to existing international obligations. The protocol also requires documentation of GMO crops, and segregation of GMO crops from non-GMO crops, although this provision will not take effect for two years. Importantly, the protocol contains a "savings clause" to make sure the agreement does not override rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that require countries to base food import rules on "sound science."