Towards a Code of Conduct on Biotechnology as It Relates to Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture13

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Following the proposal of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in the 1990s, a survey of more than 400 international experts in plant genetics identified four major areas that should be covered in the Code of Conduct: biosafety, intellectual property rights, the substitution of traditional agricultural products and the development of biotechnologies appropriate for developing countries.

Biosafety. Public interest groups are concerned over the possible environmental and health risks resulting from biotechnology, especially from the field testing and release of genetically engineered organisms and plants in the area of food and agriculture. They argue that there is a lack of

12 At that stage, still the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources.

scientific data to evaluate such risks and only the rudiments of a valid risk assessment procedure are currently possible. In the absence of an international agreement, countries that neglect to adopt adequate regulatory policies may become attractive as test sites for genetically modified organisms and plants in ways forbidden in other countries. Once released, however, organisms modified by biotechnology will not be limited by political boundaries. It is critical that means of regulation be developed at the international level. It was therefore suggested that the Code could set international standards for testing and release of such organisms.

Intellectual property rights: Some developed countries have extended legislation on intellectual property rights to cover biotechnology processes and products, in order to stimulate and protect research. But often such measures tend to restrict the exchange of germplasm, scientific information, and technologies. It was suggested that the Code lay the foundations of an international system of cooperation, through a set of agreed principles which, while being in harmony with existing international agreements, would promote research and transfer of technologies, and prevent the appropriation of existing genetic resources, traditional knowledge, and local technologies.

Substitution of traditional agricultural products: Biotechnology offers future possibilities for developing substitutes for existing crops, such as laboratory-produced vanilline flavor substituting for vanilla, which provides the livelihood of 70,000 farmers in Madagascar alone. Cocoa and sugar are two other crops threatened by substitutes. Current international economic equilibrium could dramatically shift if biotechnologies displace workers and markets in developing countries. It was proposed that the Code of Conduct offer options to minimize such effects, resulting in less drastic economic change.

Development of appropriate biotechnologies to fit the needs of developing countries: Biotechnology research is expensive, and thus tends to concentrate on cash crops and commodities of major economic interest. Unless suitable provisions are taken, crops of local and social importance in developing countries could be neglected. It was proposed that the Code promote economic incentives and suitable institutional arrangements needed to stimulate research for developing biotechnologies more appropriate for the needs of developing countries.

A first draft Code of Conduct, with four modules corresponding to the above-mentioned issues, was discussed by the FAO intergovernmental Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in 1993. The draft Code is aimed at biotechnologies insofar as they "affect the conservation and utilization of plant genetic resources." It recognizes that the new biotechnologies have tremendous possibilities both for improving the conservation of plant genetic resources and for stimulating throughout the world the creation of improvement programs. It further recognizes the risks inherent in these technologies, as well as how their application could have a negative effect, in particular in developing countries. The purpose of the Code is to enhance the positive effects of these new biotechnologies, and mitigate the negative effects foreseen. More information on this issue and the draft Code itself can be found on the Internet at http:// www. fao. org/ag / cgrfa/biocode .htm.

Subsequently, and taking into account that the CBD was developing a Biosafety protocol, the Commission recommended that the module on biosafety in relation to PGRFA be sent to the Executive Secretary of the Convention as FAO's contribution to the development of the protocol. In 1995, the Commission examined a report on recent international developments of interest to the draft Code of Conduct, and recommended that its further development and the negotiation be postponed until the negotiations for the ITPGRFA had been completed.

Following the adoption of the ITPGRFA by the FAO Conference in 2001, the Secretariat of the Commission carried out a new survey among FAO Member Nations and a large number of stakeholders to revise the possible components for the Code on the line of recent biotechnology developments. Subjects suggested by countries and stakeholders, and currently being considered as possible components of this Code, include access to and transfer of biotechnology, capacity-building, biosafety and environmental concerns, public awareness, development of appropriate biotechnologies for poor farmers and developing countries, ethical questions regarding new biotechnologies, genetic use restriction technologies ("terminator" technology), GMOs, gene flow and the question of liability, voluntary certification schemes, and possible FAO universal declarations on plant and animal genomes. The Ninth Regular Session of the Commission (October, 2002) discussed a working paper on the subject, and requested the Secretariat to prepare a study covering all the issues raised in the survey which would identify what is being done in other forums and what remains to be done on this issue so it would help the Commission to identify the issues on which it should concentrate in the future, with respect to a Code, guidelines, or other courses of action.

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