The first legally binding international agreement governing the shipment of genetically modified organisms (GMO) across borders goes into effect tomorrow (September11). The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety requires that the governments of signatory nations be notified when living GMOs, such as crop plants, are going to be brought into the country with the intention of introducing them into the environment.
Critics are already expressing concern about possible trade consequences of the new rules, which are intended to protect native biodiversity, but the protocol is not expected to significantly impact scientific research. However, the biosafety protocol is only one part of a larger treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), which also covers access to indigenous plants and other genetic resources, and so far, scientists and others say, the protocol's parent document has proved misguided at best.
"The treaty is an absolute disaster for scientists," said a senior UN official on condition of anonymity. "It draws no distinction between scientists bioprospecting for drugs and pharmaceuticals, scientists conducting academic research, and those collecting samples for agricultural research and plant breeding. I feel sorry for the scientists. It's a nightmare."
The CBD was concluded at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. Since then, it has been signed by 187 parties, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and most European countries. The US Senate, however, has never ratified the treaty, and the Bush administration appears unlikely to push for passage.
Nevertheless, for those countries that have ratified the treaty—including most of the developing world—the CBD establishes a framework to allow access to indigenous plants, animals, and other organisms based on "prior informed consent," under "mutually agreed terms," and to ensure the "fair and equitable sharing of benefits" arising from commercialization and other uses. The treaty leaves it to each country to negotiate its own rules for access and benefit sharing.
Ironically, one of its goals—and a reason many scientists originally supported the treaty—was to increase access to genetic resources. The problem, said John H. Barton, a Stanford University law professor who specializes in international environmental law, is that developing countries overestimated the monetary value of their plants and other genetic resources.
"The developing world pushed the treaty negotiations to be more about the rights to those genetic resources than about actually protecting biodiversity," he said. "The provisions that protect biodiversity are pretty weak and the provisions that deal with genetic resources are quite specific."
Douglas Daly, curator of Amazonian botany at the New York Botanical Garden, says the problem stems from "bioparanoia"—developing countries believe scientists and researchers want to steal their genetic resources to create drugs and other valuable products and not return any of the profits. "In most diversity-rich countries, there is a lot of concern over biopiracy. Some of it is legitimate but a lot of it is exaggerated," Daly said. "The treaty has led to the criminalization of the biological researcher. Everyone is suspect. As a result, people are not doing research or graduate work in these areas."
Even local scientists are not immune. Ricardo Callejas, a biology professor at the University of Antioqua in Medellin, Colombia, described a recent visit he and colleagues made to an Indian reserve in the central Colombian Amazon to research
"The locals were so obsessed by the fact that they somehow were 'owners' of this precious plant that, like little children, they tried very hard to hide everything" about it, Callejas wrote in an e-mail to
"None of us was interested in the medicinal properties [of this species]," Callejas said. "We just wanted to enjoy the experience of knowing and learning. Biodiversity, particularly in poor countries like mine, is very much nowadays linked to multinationals [and] exploitation. Obviously, science itself is misunderstood and completely distorted."
The CBD has also negatively impacted agricultural research for plant breeding and sample collection, said Cary Fowler, senior adviser to the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, one of a consortium of 16 major agricultural research institutes around the world known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Some member centers hold the world's largest collections of biodiversity for agriculture, crop-breeding materials, and gene banks.
"Our task has become extremely difficult since passage of the CBD," Fowler said. "A lot of material in our gene bank would be extinct if it had not been collected in the past. But we're finding it harder and harder to collect materials now." Collection samples have dropped from about 30,000 per year to fewer than 5000 as a direct result of the treaty, Fowler said. "The CBD is both the cause and effect of this mentality."
Fowler, who is also research director at the Agricultural University of Norway's Center for International Environment and Development Studies, said he previously supported the treaty but has since changed his mind. "For years, it was sacrilegious to say anything against the CBD. If you did, you were reactionary and anti–developing countries. But at what point do you say the emperor has no clothes? The facts do not support this treaty as being terribly productive."
Carlos M. Correa, a law professor at the University of Buenos Aires, has surveyed access agreements made under the CBD by Andean Group countries. The results are meager: Venezuela has signed 20 applications and 5 contracts, all from individual researchers; Bolivia has signed 3 applications and 1 contract; Colombia has yet to approve a single contract. "Most of the applications have been made by individual researchers from the Andean Group countries themselves, not from outside companies," Correa said. "The assumptions about how to exploit genetic resources were not correct."
Part of the problem may also be due to declining interest by pharmaceutical companies in bioprospecting for new drugs. Advances in combinatorial chemistry, genomics, and proteomics have made screening for active molecules in the lab more cost-effective than prospecting in nature.
In light of all these problems, the United Nations and the governments of some developing countries are starting to recognize the need to change the treaty's implementation. In April 2002, country representatives met in Bonn to discuss how to improve access and benefit sharing, but "further work is still needed to assist parties through complimentary approaches… such as model agreements and model legislation," the UN's CBD secretariat in Montreal told
The Bonn Guidelines will attempt to help countries distinguish between access to genetic resources for taxonomy, collection, research, and commercialization. Member countries have been asked to submit "action plans" to increase access by February 2004.
For Callejas, progress on implementing the CBD must be made quickly. "There is no way that our societies in Latin America will emerge from centuries of poverty while holding a completely distorted view of nature," he said. "Once we start looking at organisms as bank accounts, then we are missing the entire view of what is in front of us. Curiosity of the living world ends and so does the meaning of being here."
Correction (posted Sept. 11): When originally posted, this story identified the International Plant Genetics Resources Institute as a consortium of 16 major agricultural institutes around in the world. That consortium, of which the Institute is a member, is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.