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Posted July 1998 (Updated May 2001)

FAO and the Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity


Introduction

The objective of the present paper is to provide information on the work of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) related to aspects of the biosafety protocol, in order to improve synergy of instruments and harmonization and cooperation between agencies.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted by the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity as a supplementary agreement to the Convention on 29 January 2000. The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology, and establishes an advanced informed agreement (AIA) procedure for ensuring that countries are provided with the information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to the import of such organisms into their territory.

Within biosafety in general, there is a sub-set of questions that relate to the applications of the new biotechnologies to food and agriculture. In this connection, it should be recalled that the Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP), in its decision II/15, recognized "the special nature of agricultural biodiversity, its distinctive features and problems needing distinctive solutions". There is a series of instruments in the field of food and agriculture that deal directly or indirectly with biosafety related issues which would be of relevance to the development and application of the protocol. The FAO mandate on food and agriculture includes crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. In the case of fisheries and many tree species as well, all of the wild relatives of domesticated species are still found in nature.

The following are FAO instruments that deal with issues pertaining to biosafety:

The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)

The IPPC is an international treaty for cooperation in plant protection, deposited with FAO and administered by FAO through the Secretariat for the IPPC. The purpose of the Convention is "to secure common and effective action to prevent the spread and introduction of pests of plants and plant products, and to promote appropriate measures for their control". The Convention had its beginnings in 1951 and came into force in 1952. It is recognised as the primary instrument for international cooperation in the protection of plant resources from harmful pests. There are currently 106 governments that are contracting parties to the IPPC. Prior to the conclusions of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations in 1993, it was clear to IPPC Members and FAO that the IPPC would have a prominent position in the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (the SPS Agreement ). The role envisioned for the IPPC was to foster international harmonisation in phytosanitary matters affecting trade and establish standards to help ensure that phytosanitary measures were not used as unjustified barriers to trade.

The role of the Convention with respect to trade has changed significantly as a result of the SPS Agreement. This is reflected in substantial amendments found in the New Revised Text approved by FAO Conference in 1997. However, it is to be noted that although clearly having applications to the regulation of trade, the Convention is not limited in this respect. International cooperation in many forms falls within the scope of the Convention.

The IPPC is not limited in its application to cultivated plants or to cultivated systems, and protection is not limited to direct damage from pests. Therefore, the scope of the Convention is implicitly extended to the protection of natural flora from indirect pest damage (as with many weeds). Likewise, the IPPC does not only consider injury or damage by pests in terms of direct commercial impacts and trade. A broad interpretation has been universally supported and continuously reinforced through a history of interpretation and negotiation.

The Convention allows parties to take phytosanitary measures i.e. - any legislation, regulation or official procedure having the purpose to prevent the introduction and/or spread of pests. These cover the pest concerned and may also cover any plant, plant product, storage place, packaging, conveyance, container, soil and any other organism, object or material capable of harbouring or spreading pests that are deemed to require phytosanitary measures.

The IPPC calls for phytosanitary measures to be based on a pest risk analysis, which covers both economic and environmental factors including possible detrimental effects on natural vegetation. The Convention also allows for the prohibition or restriction of the movement of biological control agents and other organisms of phytosanitary concern claimed to be beneficial into the territories parties.

Any LMO that can be considered a pest of plants falls within the scope of the IPPC and will be subject to the provisions of the Convention.

Four issues determine the area of overlap between IPPC and the Protocol:

(For example, a wide interpretation that would include effects on plant biodiversity under "injurious" or "phytosanitary concern", would allow for regulating certain LMOs under national phytosanitary legislation and providing quarantine services with the authority to take measures.)

The Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

The Commission on Plant Genetic Resources was established by the FAO Conference in 1983. The mandate of the Commission was broadened to include all genetic resources that pertain to food and agriculture in 1995. The current Membership of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is 158 countries and the European Community.

The Commission has developed the following international agreements relevant to the biosafety protocol and to CBD:

In 1989 and 1991 the Commission considered reports on technical and policy issues regarding Biosafety, within the context of biotechnology in general, and requested the Secretariat to prepare a draft Code of Conduct for consideration at its Fifth Regular Session in 1993. Following a survey of more than 400 international experts, four major areas to be covered in the draft Code of Conduct were identified.

In 1993 the Commission considered the preliminary draft "Code of Conduct for Biotechnology" which included a module on biosafety. The aim of the draft code was to maximize the positive effects and minimize the possible negative effects of biotechnology. Noting that the intergovernmental Committee on the Convention on Biological Diversity (IGC/CBD, the predecessor of the COP) was considering the development of a biosafety protocol to the Convention, the Commission recommended that FAO participate in this work, in order to ensure that the aspects of biosafety in relation to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture were appropriately covered and to avoid duplication and inconsistencies. The biosafety and other environmental components of the draft FAO Code were accordingly forwarded to the Executive Secretary of the CBD, at the request of the Commission, as an input to the CBD's proposed protocol. In its Sixth Regular Session in 1995, the Commission considered the report "Recent developments of relevance to the Draft Code of Conduct for Plant Biotechnology" and postponed further work on the draft Code of Conduct till the completion of the negotiations for the revision of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources.

The Eighth Session of the CGRFA, in April 1999, has requested that a report on the status of the draft Code of Conduct on Biotechnology as it relates to Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture be presented at its Ninth Session in 2001, as the negotiations for the revision of the International Undertaking are expected to be completed during the year 2000. The CGRFA has, however, been kept informed by the Secretariat on the recent advancements in the field of plant and animal biotechnology (See Background Study Papers no. 9 "Recent developments in biotechnology as they relate to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture" and no. 10 "Recent developments in biotechnology as they relate to animal genetic resources for food and agriculture".

Codex Alimentarius

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC) was formed by FAO and the World Health Organisation in 1962 to implement the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme (http://www.codexalimentarius.net/STANDARD/standard.htm). The objectives of the Programme are to ensure consumers health and fair practices in the food trade. The CAC is an intergovernmental statutory body of FAO and WHO. Its current membership is 162 countries.

The scope of Codex Standards includes all food safety considerations, description of essential food hygiene and quality characteristics, labelling, methods of analysis and sampling, and systems for inspection and certification. Codex Standards, guidelines and recommendations are based on current scientific knowledge including assessments of risk to human health. The risk assessments are carried out by FAO/WHO expert panels of independent scientists selected on a world-wide basis. The range of standards developed by the CAC covers all foods whether processed, semi-processed or raw, intended for sale to the consumer or for intermediate processing. Over 200 standards, 45 Codes of Practice and 2,000 Maximum Limits for residues of agricultural and veterinary chemicals have been established.

Codex standards, guidelines and other recommendations are not binding on Member States, but are a point of reference in international law (General Assembly Resolution 39/248; Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures; Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade).

The Codex Alimentarius Commission has just established an ad hoc Intergovernmental Task Force on Foods Derived from Biotechnologies, in which government-designated experts will develop standards, guidelines or recommendations, as appropriate, for foods derived from biotechnologies or traits introduced into foods by biotechnological methods. The Codex Alimentarius Commission is also considering the labelling of foods derived from biotechnologies to allow the consumer to make an informed choice. FAO is fully committed to assisting Member States, particularly developing countries, to promoting and implementing the standards, guidelines and other recommendations of the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries

The FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries was adopted in 1995 by the 28th Session of the FAO Conference and provides a framework for the sustainable use and conservation of aquatic biodiversity. The code was created through negotiations with member Countries, NGOs and IGOs and contains articles on:

Although the Code is voluntary, parts of it are based on relevant rules of international law, including those reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Objectives of the Code that are relevant to the biosafety protocol include, inter alia, the promotion of fisheries in contributing to food security and food quality; the protection of living aquatic resources and their environments; the promotion of trade in fish and fishery products, in conformity with relevant international rules; and the avoidance of the use of measures that constitute hidden trade barriers.

Article 11 on Post Harvest Practices and Trade, recognizes the principles and agreements of the World Trade Organization.

Aquaculture is a primary means for the purposeful introduction of aquatic alien species, as well as the main motivation for the use of living modified aquatic organisms. Therefore, Article 9 on Aquaculture Development deals specifically with these topics, specifically: Article 9.2 on the "responsible development of aquaculture including culture based fisheries within transboundary aquatic ecosystems" and Article 9.3 on the "use of aquatic genetic resources for the purpose of aquaculture, including culture-based fisheries".

FAO is fully committed to assisting Member States, particularly developing countries, to promote and implement the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.

Concluding remarks

Biosafety as currently discussed in the CBD refers to environmental and human health safeguards concerning living modified organisms (LMO) produced by modern biotechnology. Biosafety protocols should eventually strive to protect resources for food and agriculture, while allowing for their sustainable use, development of international trade and their commercialisation.

FAO is at the service of Member States that are Parties to the CBD to assist in the implementation of the protocol and provide technical advice and assistance. FAO also remains at their service for any other interactions that might pertain to food and agriculture.

www.fao.org/waicent/faoinfo/sustdev/rtdirect/rtre0034.htm and the Biosafety Protocol to the Convention on Biological Diversity provide information on the work of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) related to aspects of the biosafety protocol, in order to improve synergy of instruments and harmonization and cooperation between agencies.

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