Promoting public participation and transparency in biosafety
Today, genetically modified crops are grown on some 450 million acres in over two dozen countries, but there are also numerous countries that ban or prohibit genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Even among countries that prohibit GMO cultivation, most still allow GMO products — in particular animal feed — to be imported.
Despite the importance of this issue, the public and decision makers have only limited awareness and understanding about living modified organisms (LMOs)/GMOs, a limitation that is exacerbated by the complexity of the issues at stake. This was one of the conclusions of the Second Global Round Table on Public Awareness, Access to Information and Public Participation Regarding LMOs/GMOs, held from 15 to 17 November 2016 in Geneva. The round table was organized under the leadership of the Government of Austria, and was a joint event of the UNECE Aarhus Convention and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity. The meeting gathered representatives of Parties to both treaties, non-governmental organizations, Aarhus Centres and academia from all over the world to discuss how the public can effectively participate in decision-making on LMOs/GMOs, including how authorities can raise awareness on these issues. Among other topics, they discussed how recent developments, such as synthetic biology and new breeding techniques, fit within the existing definitions of LMOs/GMOs and what opportunities — bilateral, regional or international — exist to cooperate on these issues.
Participants presented the different benefits they had observed as a result of education programmes, access to information and public participation regarding LMOs/GMOs, including a greater responsiveness and accountability among decision makers, the smoother implementation of decisions taken and their increased acceptance by the public. Another benefit was a better understanding by all stakeholders of the correlation between LMOs/GMOs, food safety and health issues.
At the same time, participants pointed to a number of challenges to promoting public participation in decision-making on LMOs/GMOs. A commonly observed problem was a lack of financial resources, technical capacities and infrastructure. In particular, it was found that there was a limited awareness among decision makers and the public regarding LMOs/GMOs, and there were difficulties in reaching minorities, vulnerable groups and residents of rural areas. In that regard, speakers highlighted the importance of the entry into force of the Aarhus Convention’s Almaty amendment on public participation in decision-making on GMOs.
As a way forward, participants emphasized that awareness-raising should not be limited to traditional means, but should combine all available methods, sources and modern technologies, including webinars social media. Many participants also emphasized that civil society could be instrumental in supporting public awareness-raising and education, and noted that international events, such as the International Biodiversity Day on 22 May, were opportunities to carry out campaigns and inform the public on matters related to LMOs/GMOs.
Furthermore, participants benefitted from the presentation of a “dream public participation” procedure, which gave insights into realizing meaningful participation in decision-making on GMOs/LMOs. Important elements included early notification, sufficient time frames, access to information and taking due account of the public’s views at every stage, including on whether to take action at all.
Participants also had opportunity to discuss bilateral, regional and international cooperation. They noted that cooperation could be beneficial, and in many cases even necessary, especially with regard to the potential transboundary impacts of the release of LMOs/GMOs. The interventions clearly demonstrated that the collaborative work between the Aarhus Convention and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety had already been fruitful: the tools produced through the collaboration, such as the guidance material, training modules and promotion of the Biosafety and Aarhus Clearing Houses, had proven useful. That cooperation had also served to promote practices and instruments of both treaties globally. For instance, Guatemala, which is a Party to the Cartagena Protocol but not to the Aarhus Convention, reported that it made use of the Convention’s Lucca Guidelines on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice with respect to Genetically Modified Organisms.
The round table promoted the transfer of knowledge and fostered environmental democracy in the context of biosafety around the globe. It demonstrated remarkable synergies between the Aarhus Convention and the Cartagena Protocol, which have matched capacities and expertise to co-organize a joint meeting. The outcomes of the event will be reported to the upcoming sessions of the Meeting of the Parties to the Aarhus Convention (Budva, Montenegro, 11–13 September 2017) and to the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol (Cancun, Mexico, 4–17 December 2016).
The meeting resulted in a Chair’s summary outlining the key actions for the way forward to ensure transparency and public participation in LMOs/GMOs related decision-making.
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