International conference takes major step to protect biodiversity

May 17, 2008

An international conference agreed Friday to hold producers or handlers of genetically engineered organisms liable for damage their products cause to native plants or animals when transported across borders.

The agreement, concluding a five-day, 147-nation conference in Bonn, Germany, will be refined into an accord that will have the force of law for its signatories _ a process expected to take two years, said the German government representative, Ursula Heinen.

The agreement would not be legally binding on the United States, however, since Washington has not ratified the 1992 Biodiversity Convention and is not a party to the convention’s Cartagena Protocol on the safety of biotech products, which came into force in 2003, conference spokesman David Ainsworth said.

“We will have a legal obligation as regards to liability and redress for damage caused to biodiversity, to plants and animals,” Heinen said at a news conference broadcast on the Internet.

“This is a political compromise. Now the legal experts will begin working at it,” she said.

The agreement, adopted by consensus at the final plenary, could be a major step in the bitter debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are widely used in U.S. agricultural products.

Most GMO products are banned in Europe, for fear that their seeds will accidentally spread and alter the natural surroundings.

The Greenpeace environmental movement, which denounces gene-modified plants as dangerous, says the agreement has too many loopholes that could be exploited during the next two years of negotiations.

Brazil, an exporter of modified crops, led the opposition to legally binding measures, but finally agreed to a text that could allow it to opt out under certain conditions, said Greenpeace campaigner Doreen Stabinsky.

“There’s still a big fight ahead of us. I am not at all optimistic about the ultimate outcome,” Stabinsky said.

The meeting, which focused on safety and responsibility for transporting and handling GMOs, set the stage for a major conference of 6,000 delegates on the Biodiversity Convention, due to begin Monday in Bonn.

Talks on liability have been going on for four years and were to have been concluded in Bonn. That target has now been set back to the next Biodiversity Convention conference in 2010 in Japan.

The accord says “operators” responsible for contamination by GMOs will be held liable, but the experts must define how responsibility will be assigned and how they would be assessed for damages, said Heinen, who is a deputy minister for food, agriculture and consumer protection.

Ahmed Djobhlaf, the secretary general of the Biodiversity Convention, said public pressure is mounting on companies to protect biodiversity and produce green products.

“This battle of life on earth we will not win if we do not have the active economic sector on board,” he said.


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