Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report


The international dimension

46. Trade in GMOs and GMO products between WTO members is subject to GATT rules on non-discrimination between importing countries and between domenstic and imported products. Exceptions are granted by Article XX in order to protect human, animal or plant life or health (XX(b)); and to conserve exhaustible natural resources (where measures are taken in conjunction with domestic restrictions) including environmental and biological resources (XX(g)). Article XX(b) is given practical meaning by the WTO Sanitary and Pytosanitary (SPS) agreement which recognises the right of states to take relevant measures based on scientific principles and not maintained without scientific evidence. Measures may be provisionally adopted on available evidence (the precautionary principle) but additional information must be sought to determine the level of risk and the measure reviewed within a reasonable time. The DTI said that for the purposes of the SPS the EU regulatory system constituted 'sound science' and therefore no trade restriction could be imposed on a GMO or its products approved under that system. The situation in respect of article XX(g) was "less clear cut" there being no further set of rules to guide implementation.[89] The DETR wrote that while the Government was of the view that segregation would have been the better way to introduce GM crops into the UK, it was satisfied with the safety assessment carried out on the relevant products and that therefore any attempt to impose segregation as a condition of import would not be defensible under WTO rules.[90]

47. In this light we share Ministers' disappointment at the collapse of negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in February 1999 in the face of opposition from the grain exporting countries, members of the 'Miami Group'. We regard the 'advanced informed agreement' of those receiving shipments of GMOs (or live modified organisms (LMOs) as the protocol described them) as important to address the inevitable variations in the capacity of regulatory regimes around the world. Furthermore as we have seen in the UK voluntary restraint by industry can be negotiated to avoid 'legal entanglement' this will not be the case everywhere. There is a pressing need for multilateral rules to address the issues and concerns of GM products. Given that 'prior informed consent' already operates with apparent success with regard to transboundary movements of chemicals we regret that short-sighted self-interest has over-ruled a precautionary approach with respect to GMOs.

48. In line with our conclusions on the negotiation of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment we welcome UK and EU resistance to the subordination of the Protocol to the GATT. De facto subordination of multilateral environmental agreements is enough of a difficulty without enshrining a precautionary approach to free trade protection in legal text. We believe that the explicit subordination of a multilateral environmental agreement, such as the Biosafety Protocol, to international trade rules would be a deeply unfortunate precedent to set. We recommend that the Government must make every effort to revive the negotiations on the Protocol and bring them to a satisfactory conclusion. To complement work on multilateral rules on biotechnology we believe that the UK should take the lead in establishing an international scientific effort on the environmental, and other, implications of biotechnology and genetic modification subject in the same way that climate change has been approached.

49. Another aspect of the international dimension relates to evidence we heard from Sir Robert May that biotechnology may have a significant contribution to make to a second, more sustainable, "green revolution" in the light of forecast population growth and pressure on the worlds agricultural production - particularly in developing countries.[91] These issues are highly complex and controversial and go some way beyond the scope of this inquiry. However, they are also very important and we note that the Cabinet Committee has no member from the Department for International Development. We recommend that a Minister from the Department for International Development be appointed to the Cabinet Ministerial Group on Biotechnology and Genetic Modification. We regard this as important in the light of DfID's interest in the consistency of UK policies across the board as they impact upon developing countries and in view of doubts expressed by witnesses as to the positive contribution that GM technology could make to the agriculture of developing countries.[92]

89  Appendix 18 Back

90  Ev p63 Back

91  Q104 Back

92  See Appendix 17 (World Development Movement) Back

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