What Is The Cartagena Protocol?

by Phoebe Bracken

What is the Cartagena Protocol?

An important intersection in the relationship between international trade and the environment is highlighted in questions of biotechnology, and the trade and movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) around the world [4]. GMOs simply refer to any organism whose genetic composition has been manipulated by humans, for example, to make a plant show a particularly desirable genetic trait [2].

Since the 1980s, there have been huge strides made in the collective understanding, use and commercialisation of GMOs across many industries from the likes of agriculture to medicine. Ever since their conception, however, public opinion on whether, how and when biotechnology should be used has been divided.

Two months after the 1999 World Trade Organisation discussions in Seattle, where parties failed to produce an agreement to formalise the place of the environment within international trade, the Cartagena Protocol was created [1]. The meeting was formed of parties of the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (also known as the Conference of the Parties (COP)) who initially met in Cartagena, Colombia and then met again to finalise the Protocol in Montreal, Canada [2].

Before the Cartagena Protocol, there had been disparities in regional responses to biotechnological developments and the trade of GMOs. The US’ more lenient stance on the generation and transport of GMOs, for example, sat in stark contrast to the EU’s much more cautious approach [1].

What did the Cartagena Protocol achieve?

This protocol foregrounds the need for synergy between international trade and environmental agreements. Previous attempts to reach a conclusive agreement on biosafety, such as those by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, were challenged by the scope of industries affected by biotechnologies and the difficulty of defining a biosafety standard across them [1].

Critically, the Cartagena Protocol does not set out a rigid biosafety standard for countries to abide by. Instead, it highlights the agency of importing nations to work, assisted by regulations and means of assessing biosafety risk, to determine their approach to importing GMOs [1]. A key component of the protocol is the right for importing countries to reject goods based on concern for their public or environmental health implications [1]. Inevitably, the societal differences regarding biotechnology will continue to be reflected in how these goods are traded.

A further commitment made by the Protocol is the need to label all living modified organisms (LMOs) in trade, noting requirements for safe storage, transport, source of further information regarding the organism [4].

The development and use of biotechnology, particularly in agriculture, has and continues to have uneven geography. For many countries that had not yet formed legislation on the use and trade of these technologies, the Cartagena Protocol represented a starting point for regulation [1]. To date, 103 parties have signed the Protocol [3].

The approach of the Cartagena protocol leans on a more cautious view of biotechnology and has, therefore, been criticised in terms of its effectiveness in the face of rapid scientific developments in the field [1]. In light of the rate of change in biotechnology, the Protocol encourages signatories to cooperate and share information regarding the impacts of GMOs on biodiversity and the health of different human communities [4].

Whilst this Protocol does not go all the way to aligning the questions of the environment and trade regarding biotechnology, it represented a directional change in international agreements to put the two in conversation and the differences in societal approaches to their relationship.

Reference List

[1] Falkner, R. (2000) ‘Regulating biotech trade: the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety’, International Affairs, 76, (2), Special Biodiversity Issue: 299-313.
[2] Glass, J.A. (2000) ‘Merits of Ratifying and Implementing the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety’, Northwestern Journal of International Law & Business, 21(1)
[3] Convention on Biological Diversity, List of Parties, URL: https://www.cbd.int/information/parties [accessed 07.12.21]
[4] Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2000) ‘Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity: text and annexes. Montreal: Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Categories Biodiversity

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