International agreements on global environmental problems

Increasing concerns about global environmental problems and the need for international coordination in addressing them have given rise to a proliferation of international agreements. At the U. N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, a basis was laid for several international agreements in the areas of biodiversity preservation, climate change, desertification control, and others. Of direct relevance to the management of biodiversity and biotechnology is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD is an intergovernmental convention that entered into force in 1993, which has now been ratified by 180 parties with the aim to achieve three main goals: (1) the conservation of biodiversity; (2) sustainable use of the components of biodiversity, and (3) sharing the benefits arising from the commercial and other utilization of genetic resources in a fair and equitable way.

In January, 2000, a supplementary agreement to the CBD, known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, was adopted. This agreement seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. The two cornerstones of the Protocol are the concepts of Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) and the Precautionary Approach.4 The AIA enables importing countries to subject all imports of Living Modified Organisms

4 The CBD website on the Cartagena Protocol describes the Precautionary Approach: "One of the outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 . . . was the adoption of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which contains 27 principles to underpin sustainable development. One of these principles is Principle 15 which states that 'In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.'"

(LMO's) to a risk assessment before allowing its entry, and such risk assessments may be made using a precautionary approach. This could have implications for the adoption of agricultural biotechnology, as this agreement could allow countries to block imports of seeds of GM plant varieties in the absence of sufficient scientific evidence about their safety. The agreement entered into force in September, 2003.

It is important to note that the members of the CBD and the Cartagena Protocol differ from the members of the WTO. Notably, the United States has not ratified the CBD (although it is a signatory) and is not a signatory to the CP and, as the primary developer and exporter of GM products, this is likely to have major implications for how these agreements are implemented. How these differences in legally binding commitments among countries will be resolved in international fora is still not clear, and there are attempts to try to harmonize any conflicting provisions (Josling, 1999). It is also not clear how varying standards for risk assessment allowed under the WTO and multilateral environmental agreements will be resolved. This will most likely emerge through dispute resolution and arbitration in international bodies (Anderson and Nielsen, 2001).

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