I. Introduction

A. The breadth of the topic

Genetic modification and “biosafety” are concepts that have not been well understood by, or accessible to, the non-geneticists working in the fields of conservation science, law, administration and management, and in the scientific, legal, administrative and management aspects of sustainable use. The biodiversity debate is at the forefront of the larger question of how humanity can, in an integrated, congruent way, address human livelihoods, while at the same time fulfilling its international mandates to conserve and sustainably use the environment. In a world focused on issues such as poverty and food security, as well as species loss and ecosystem destruction, these questions are among the most important and the most difficult on the planet.

In this connection, we find many claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – that they can be a basis for increasing food production, without the need to convert more land to cultivation, for example. These claims, however, are countered by the claims that GMOs may have a variety of impacts on people and animals, and especially on ecosystems and lands not under cultivation, and concerns about whether and how the benefits of GMOs are actually experienced in developing countries.

After an examination of sources and noted commentaries relating to the GMO/biosafety “debate,” two things are clear:

(i)      There are three basic areas in which these issues are under discussion:

(ii)      Many of the prominent voices in each of these areas are focused only on their own area, and not entirely aware of the other two, so that debates often appear rather vague and disconnected – one side of the discussion may, for example, be arguing about the scientific issue, while the other is focusing on economic or social issues, with the result that both condemn the other’s arguments as unsound and/or unresponsive, without being fully aware that they are arguing entirely different points.

In using this paper, it is important to note that the “scientific debate” (i.e., the question of whether GMOs are inherently safe or inherently dangerous) cuts across all other issues. The remaining discussion would be meaningless, for example, if GMOs were determined to be inherently and unavoidably dangerous, since there would then be no justification for releasing them into the natural (or uncontrolled) environment.

Consequently, this paper is divided into the three primary areas of debate listed above. It sets out the scientific debate first, because that debate is the primary crosscutting point. Then it looks at the developmental issues followed by socio-cultural issues. In both of the latter discussions, it is assumed that the reader has read the scientific discussion. Hence, the scientific safety issues are not repeated in the later discussions.

Within this framework, many of the issues that are generally viewed as “crosscutting” (across all biodiversity domains) take on a new significance, and in some cases a new meaning. For example, the concept of “precaution” is being addressed in concrete and sometimes controversial ways, in regard to biosafety. Many countries also suggest the existence of a so-called “development principle”, which adds a human balance to the precautionary principle.

Similarly, modern advances in biotechnology bear a unique relation to the concept of “equitable sharing of the benefits derived from the utilisation of genetic resources,”3 and technology transfer. Through these concepts significant changes and controversies are arising concerning the role of multinational corporations in the enhancement of lives, lifestyles and livelihoods of people, communities, and developing countries. Perhaps the single most important factor in making progress within this field is the development of reliable information and analysis, in fields of biology, ecology, law, economics, ecosystem management, and social policy. While these concepts are incorporated into the three main discussions, the special elements of their application to GMOs are separately laid out at the end of the paper, for purposes of clarity.

B. IUCN and Biosafety

IUCN’s important international role is to serve as a “knowledge network” of experts and information on issues within our two conservation goals of facing the extinction crisis and restoring and maintaining ecosystem integrity, within the various disciplines that effect them most directly, where we can be effective and add value. In this role, IUCN is now facing the challenge of a major change in the underlying sciences and the manner in which they are used. As noted by Dr. Barry Commoner,

Biology was once regarded as a languid, largely descriptive discipline, a passive science that was content, for much of its history, merely to observe the natural world, rather than to change it. No longer. Today, biology, armed with the power of genetics, has replaced physics as the activist Science of the Century …, calling forth artificial forms of life rather than undiscovered elements and sub-atomic particles.4

The Second World Conservation Congress (WCC-2) recognised this challenge and the potential importance of IUCN’s role in it in several critical ways, the most direct of which are found in Resolution 2.31 and the IUCN Programme.

Resolution 2.31 on “Genetically Modified Organisms”:

This resolution noted two key concerns regarding GMOs:

(i)      the potential for significant reduction or loss of biodiversity, as a result of releases of GMOs; and

(ii)      the potential role of GMOs in “achieving global food security,” which it noted “have not been adequately demonstrated so far.”

The resolution focuses on the “lack of knowledge on the effects of GMOs on biodiversity and the consequent importance of applying the precautionary approach as set out in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and as reflected in the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and in numerous international treaties.” It specifically urges the application of the precautionary approach to GMO-related decisions. Beyond this, it requests the Director General of IUCN:

-     “to support initiatives to implement the Cartagena Protocol”; and

-     “to propose options for an IUCN contribution, focusing especially on biodiversity, socio-economic impact and food security.”

IUCN Programme:

IUCN has already begun the process described in Resolution 2.31, in the form of the adoption of, and work under, IUCN’s Intersessional Programme (also adopted by WCC-2). The Programme, specifically notes, with regard to GMOs and biotechnology, that:

”The next few years will see intense political, social and economic struggle over these developments. What do the potential risks and benefits of biotechnology mean for the struggle to conserve, sustainably use and equitably share the benefits of biodiversity? The potential power of the biotech revolution will be one that fundamentally shapes our future. Achieving positive results will test the world’s collective creativity in public-private partnerships, governance and international scientific and legal regimes.”5

This paper arises out of the process by which IUCN’s Council commissioned an initial orientation to the GMO issue. The publication of that document, in a slightly revised form constitutes an initial step in carrying out IUCN’s mandate and its contribution to the international work on biosafety and GMOs in the context of conservation and sustainable use.

C. Objective of this Paper

This paper is intended to provide a basic and balanced understanding of the GMO issue, the sources of controversy and the particular issues of governance and responsible environmental action that arise from it. It seeks to provide an accessible discussion of the wide range of scientific, social, economic and other issues which are frequently expressed only in difficult technical terminology. It also seeks to find a basis for understanding how the various issues and arguments interrelate, and to examine the reasons that the current debate does not appear to be progressing towards resolution.

This paper is not expected to, and does not, reach specific conclusions or final recommendations regarding GMOs, but will offer some guidance concerning ways of approaching the issue, and the relevant concerns and available options for national and regional decision-makers and the civil society, in addressing the issue in various contexts.


3Convention on Biological Diversity, Article 1. The quoted language is the Convention’s description of the third of its three primary objectives.

4Commoner, 2002, at p.39

5Stepping into the new millennium, (introduction to IUCN Programme), (IUCN, 2000) at p. 5.

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