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GMOs Beyond Borders: The Politics of Risk

Can an international treaty help us make better choices about GMOs?

India already has 2,500 kinds of eggplant, but recently, Monsanto and Indian seed company Mahyco tried to introduce one more: "BT brinjal." Seeds for the insect-proof veggie were approved by regulators, but, facing public and academic outrage over an allegedly flimsy risk assessment, Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was forced to halt import of the seeds this February.

That’s just one example of a problem both pro- and anti-GMO scientists at this week’s MOP 5 biosafety conference in Nagoya, Japan, say is rampant. Around the world last year, 14 million farmers – 13 million of them in developing countries – grew genetically modified crops on over 330 million acres, but the way many countries assess the risks those crops and other living modified organisms (LMOs) pose to biodiversity is considered to be deeply flawed.

Risk assessment is the lynchpin of the Cartagena Protocol, the international treaty meant to ensure LMOs don’t harm biodiversity or its sustainable use. According to the Protocol, before a country imports a new LMO for the first time, the exporter must give them information including a risk assessment showing how it will impact the environment (countries can also consider related health and socio-economic impacts, like what would happen to farmers if a GM crop wiped out other local crops through cross-pollination; although the whole process is much less rigorous for LMOs that will be used directly for food or feed). The importer can then ask for more info, reject the application, or approve it. That process is especially important because unlike chemicals or other traditional technologies, many LMOs can reproduce on their own, so dealing with problems once they’re out in the environment can be extremely difficult.

photo of people holding a sign at a demonstration Over 800 people gathered to protest GMOs at a parade in Nagoya the day before MOP 5 began.

But just how are the risk assessments meant to prevent that scenario implemented? One conference participant from India said, "we're making regulatory decisions by the seat of our pants." Delegates from other developing countries echoed him (usually in less frank terms), and said lack of money is a major obstacle. According to Erie Tamale, with the Convention on Biological Diversity's Biosafety Unit, "resources are very limited" and 90 countries are currently waiting for funds to implement their biosafety frameworks.

The situation isn't much better where funds abound, though. Martin Frid of the Consumer's Union of Japan described the process here as a "rubber-stamp" assembly line based on information provided by the corporations applying for approval. Scientists have been saying American LMO risk assessments are incompetent and scientifically unsound for decades. The European Union, on the other hand, is working on detailed guidelines for assessment, and some countries like Norway have more fully developed systems in place already.

Not everyone agrees that not enough studies are being done, however. Jorg Romeis, a Swiss biologist with the Public Research & Regulation Initiative (PRRI), said the main problem is that risk assessments are too cautious. "Almost everywhere, we collect too much extra information that's not required," he told me yesterday. PRRI is an international association of public sector biotechnology researchers. Many of its members support more widespread use of LMOs, arguing they will help reduce hunger and enhance sustainability. Romeis said that oftentimes lab tests of LMOs are enough to determine if they are safe, and unneeded field tests "take an enormous amount of money and time."

Doreen Stabinsky, a professor of environmental politics at the College of the Atlantic in Maine with a PhD in genetics, countered that field studies and lab tests are entirely different animals. For instance, while a lab test on the effects of Bt might test whether they kill certain insects, a field test would look at more complex environmental interactions. "There are still things we don't know we don't know. The main question with LMOs is, what can't we predict?" she said.

Eric Darier, director of Greenpeace Canada's GMO campaign, took the argument a step further, writing by email yesterday that "for some issues like GE fish, there are already enough scientific concerns to impose a global ban. We shouldn't wait for a risk assessment process to come to that conclusion if we already know it's particularly risky." Darier has been campaigning at MOP 5 for delegates to immediately address the issue of engineered fish, which pose a unique international problem because they can swim across borders.

Fish don't seem likely to come up this week, but delegates are considering a new "roadmap" that provides guidelines for how to do risk assessments. The document defines "sound and quality science" and "data relevancy," ensures public involvement, and points out that regulators need to loop back and repeat certain steps of the assessment as new information comes to light. The voluntary guidelines would help countries whose problems are rooted in scant experience, although they're not likely to clear up the web of politics and money that seems to be undermining effective risk assessment in other cases.

So is the Cartagena Protocol making a difference? Stabinsky, who's been following the Protocol since its formation, thinks so. "As we watch this technology develop, I'm really happy we actually have a protocol that deals with international regulation," she said. The more time I spend here at MOP 5, the more I agree with her.

Winnie Bird
Winifred Bird is a freelance journalist and translator focusing on the environment and architecture. From 2005 to 2014 she lived in rural Japan, where she covered the 2011 tsunami, earthquake, and nuclear disaster for publications including the Japan Times, Environmental Health Perspectives, and Yale Environment 360. When she’s not writing she can usually be found in her vegetable garden. She currently lives in the California Bay Area.

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