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Biotechnology in the Global Economy:
Science and the Precautionary Principle

22-23 September 2000, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University

Funding for coverage of this meeting provided by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Harvard Center for International Development


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The International Conference on Biotechnology in the Global Economy: Science and the Precautionary Principle took place in at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, from 22-23 September 2000. Organized and hosted by Harvard University's Center for International Development (CID) and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the conference attracted over 200 participants from governments, industry, non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations, and research and academic institutions. The conference is part of a series of events aimed at exploring key policy issues related to biotechnology and globalization. The meeting aimed to explore the policy and practical implications of applying the precautionary principle in the field of biotechnology, specifically with regards to: theoretical, historical and cultural aspects of the principle; previous applications in international environmental and trade law; the various definitions of the principle's use in international discussions and negotiations; and social, economic and political implications of the principle in developed and developing countries. Participants met in five full sessions to hear keynote speeches and presentations addressing: an overview of the principle; concepts and definitions; scientific and technical foundations; a recent publication on the potential and hazards of genetically modified foods; and a closing dialogue on key findings and next steps. Participants also met in four parallel sessions using case study presentations for discussion in the areas of: national experiences; international experiences; policy and institutional implications; and regulatory implications. The output of this conference will be a brief summary of the proceedings and a more detailed summary, focusing on solutions and next steps. This conference material is expected to contribute to current efforts to develop research activities, provide training and promote policy dialogue and awareness on the safe use of biotechnology. Photo: Calestous Juma, Science, Technology and Innovation Program, Harvard University, and chair of the meeting

Click here for highlights, including photos and RealAudio, from the Plenary Sessions on: Concepts and Definitions; and Scientific and Technical Foundations

Click here for highlights from the Parallel Sessions, including photos and RealAudio: national experiences; international experiences; policy and institutional implications; and regulatory implications

Click here for highlights from 22 September, including photos and RealAudio from: the opening session; the panel discussion providing an overview of the Precautionary Principle; and a book presentation of Pandora's Picnic Basket, by Alan McHughen


General Discussion and Closing Plenary

In the Closing Plenary session, discussions were based on summaries presented by the chairs of the parallel sessions.

Photo: Calestous Juma, Science, Technology and Innovation Program, Harvard University, and Conference Chair, with the Moderators of the Parallel Panel Discussions: William Leiss, Royal Society, Canada, Jayashree Watal, CID, Amir Attaran, CID, and Professor Amanda Galvez, Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana, Mexico

Wrapping up, Dr. Calestous Juma, Science, Technology and Innovation Program, CID, email, said the discussions at the conference far exceeded his expectations. He said he was interested in finding a way that research activities could help further discussions in a constructive manner.

In his closing remarks, Dr. Juma, provided some closing remarks and reflections on the meeting and its outcomes. He suggested that there needs to be a co-evolution between technological and institutional change, in order to resolve safety questions. He noted that all are interested in precaution as a guiding principle, but that there are differences in defining it. He stated that if this was solely a domestic discussion it would be easy to resolve, but that domestic actions taken in one country are bound to have implications for others. He anticipated that the Cartagena Protocol's entry into force would generate guidelines on how to apply the precautionary principle. He said that if we do not have common and normative standards, it will be difficult to make sense of the principle and its operationalization. He suggested that such standards will most likely be initially developed at the national level. He noted that despite numerous ecological and human health studies, the international community is still not able to agree on establishing and carrying out domestic assessments of biotechnology. He stressed the need to generate interest in evolutionary biology, noting that ignorance of ecosystem functions increases uncertainty. He emphasized the important role of the public sector. Juma stated that he would produce a summary reflecting his views of the conference, and invited all participants to contribute papers for inclusion in a special journal issue. He anticipated organizing further conferences on IPR, ethics and institutional innovations associated with molecular biology. ([email protected])

Summaries of the parallel sessions
William Leiss (right) chaired the parallel session on Regulatory Implications. He noted his session's difficulties in addressing the regulatory implications of the precautionary principle, and called for further work in the area. He noted Andrew Apel's presentation on unifying the precautionary principle with substantial equivalence, highlighting Apel's final conclusion that substantial equivalence could generally serve as a replacement for the precautionary principle in dealing with situations of uncertainty. He noted that Mario Rodriguez generally disapproved of the precautionary principle, instead preferring that the current debate shift to the use of biotechnology as an economic development tool for developing countries. Leiss suggested that future efforts address the issue in greater detail, perhaps through a comparative analysis of actual cases or a discussion of the implications of a few formulations of the precautionary principle. He concluded by highlighting a question raised by Rodriguez as to whether the precautionary principle's application would result in unfair advantages, particularly between developing and developed countries. Photo: Calestous Juma and William Leiss

Jayashree Watal, Center for International Development, summarized the session on International Experiences. She noted that Piet Van der Meer's presentation provided experiences from his work in the CEE and his emphasis on developing a common understanding of the precautionary principle. She highlighted Diego Malpede's review of Argentina's national biosafety experiences and perspective on the implications of the Cartagena Protocol and the WTO's SPS Agreement. She noted progress in moving from generalities to a greater level of specificity, while stressing the need for further work in this direction.

Amir Attaran (left) summarized the session on National Experiences, observing that the talks overlapped constructively to demonstrate that developing countries do have the institutional capacity to regulate biotechnology, which belies rhetoric that they must be protected from it. He highlighted: Luiz Antonio Barreto de Castro's illustration that Brazil's regulatory system has developed enough to have hit a roadblock with non-commercialization; Aarti Gupta's point that India recognizes tropical biotechnology as different from non-tropical biotechnology; and John Mugabe's outline of the hierarchy of biotechnology development in Africa. Attaran noted that all three speakers expressed the desire to embrace and not retreat from biotechnology.

Amanda Galvez (above right) summarized the panel discussion on Policy and Institutional Implications, summarized the session policy and institutional implications, noting Ed Soule's discussion of strong and weak formulations of the precautionary principle and their implications for assessing the risks of GM and non-GM agricultural practices. She noted that Philip Bereano traced the US history of preventive measures taken from the 1970s to date, and stressed the public's role in asking questions about new technologies. Regarding Gary Comstock's presentation, she highlighted his call for scientists to convey their views to the public and to focus on biotechnology's benefits as well as the problems of traditional agriculture.

During the ensuing discussion, a number of issues were raised. One participant called for comparative assessments of why some developing countries, like Kenya, Brazil and India, do not allow commercialziation of GM crops, whereas others like China do. He suggested that democratic structures could be a factor. Another said that globalization is the true context for this debate, as people interact on a profit basis. One participant found that failure to criticize existing regulatory processes leaves an unbalanced conclusion and that recommendations should ensure data gaps are filled. Another participant concluded that the precautionary approach may condemn the comparative advantages of some developing countries using biotechnology. Another said that whether or not the precautionary principle is used, a comparison of advantages and disadvantages requires working across scientific disciplines and in different field settings, rather than in a laboratory.
Klaus Ammann (right) suggested, inter alia, the creation of a "toolbox" to come to better terms with the precautionary principle, deal with data and prepare a database containing relevant information on crops and biotechnology.

One representative of Monsanto proposed that determining what is "insufficient" knowledge" would greatly facilitate future discussions.


Calestous Juma, Chikako Takase, UN Division for Sustainable Development, and Thomas Yongo, Earth Negotiations Bulletin (all formerly with the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity)

Delegates mingle after the close of the conference

Center for International Development

bullet CID homepage bullet Conference Program
bullet CID events bullet Abstracts and Viewpoints
bullet International Conference on Biotechnology in the Global Economy homepage  

Other biotechnology-related sites

bullet CBD Secretariat web site

bullet ENB coverage of CBD COP-5, Nairobi, May 2000

bullet Linkages biodiversity page

bullet ENB coverage of resumed Ex-COP, Montreal, January 2000

bullet Links to other Biotechnology-related sites

bullet SD coverage of 1999 conference on Biotechnology in the Global Economy

�2000, IISD. All rights reserved.

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