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India needs to protect its biodiversity

India needs to protect its biodiversity
India will now face the challenge of not only ensuring protection against the hazards of genetically modified [GM] crops at home but also across the globe as it is slated to assume of the Presidency of the 11th Conference of Parties [CoP-11] to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD] early next month.

The genetically modified organisms [GMOs, including GM crops are liable to cause health and environmental hazards and also threaten biological diversity through genetic pollution. Keeping in view the need to protect biological diversity, the international community after several years of negotiations adopted the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety at an extraordinary meeting of the Conference of Parties to Convention on Biological Diversity in Montreal in 2000. After the required number of ratifications by countries, the Protocol came into effect on September 11, 2003.

India is hosting the CoP-11 in Hyderabad on October 1-19. At the opening of CoP-11, the Presidency of CoP will be handed over by Japan [as the host of CoP-10] to the Indian Minister for Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natrajan. India will be the President of CoP-11 for a two year period ending at the opening of the next CoP-12.

Most contentious issue for discussions and agreement will be that on safe transfer, trans-boundary movement, transit, handling and use of genetically modified organisms [GMOs] termed as living modified organisms [LMOs] in the CBD’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Discussions on this issue is slated in October 1-5.

CoP-11 will also discuss several issues relating to biodiversity in October 8-19. The High Level Segment of CoP-11 will meet for three days from October 16 to discuss implementation of Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing and Strategic Plan on Biodiversity 2011-12, biodiversity for livelihood and poverty reduction and coastal and marine biodiversity. The Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is slated to inaugurate this High Level Segment Meeting on October 16.

The CoP-11 is expected to be the largest such conference to be held in the country, with participation of thousands of delegates from all countries of the world, including Ministers/Vice-Ministers, Ambassadors, senior Government officials, heads and senior officers of UN and multilateral agencies, private sector, academia, civil society organizations.

The Cartagena Protocol has provisions for Precautionary Principles in accordance with the precautionary approach, contained in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. It allows the countries to ban imports of a LMO if they feel there is not enough scientific evidence that the product is safe and requires exporters to label shipments containing genetically altered commodities such as corn or cotton.

As the global trade is regulated by the World Trade Organisation [WTO] there is a need that this global trade regulator agree and respect the application of the Precautionary Principles of the Cartagena Protocol. Also a number of agreements under the WTO, such as the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures [SPS Agreement] and the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade [TBT Agreement] should be made consistent with provisions of the Cartagena Protocol.

The WTO’s  Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights [TRIPs] should be made consistent with the provisions of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD], particularly those relating to traditional knowledge, priori art, access and benefit sharing with local communities.

Broadly the LMOs mentioned in the Protocol and GMOs termed in common parlance are the same. But some vested interests argue that there is a difference between an LMO and a GMO . They say that a LMO is capable of growing, and typically refers to agricultural crops while GMOs include both LMOs and organisms which are not capable of growing further.  This issue needs to be settled once and for all and if possible the confusion should be removed by replacing LMOs by GMOs in the Protocol.

Among GMOs, India has so far approved only Bt cotton for commercial cultivation. The experience of cultivation of Bt cotton in various parts of the country over the past years since its first approval in 2002 has not been that encouraging. There were some instances of crop failures leading to reported cases of farmers’ distress and suicides. The promised yield was not realised in some cases leading to low returns. Apart from the high cost of the seeds, the input cost for the farmers shot up.

In recent times there were incidences of mealy bug on Bt cotton destroying the crop. There were reported cases of genetic contamination of nearby non-Bt cotton fields by gene flow from Bt cotton. There were reported cases of mortality of sheep grazing over Bt cotton fields. Taking into account the distress caused to farmers due to cultivation of Bt cotton, the Maharashtra State Government took a conscious decision to ban the sale Bt cotton seeds.

Taking into account the reported health and environmental hazards of GM crops across the globe India did not dare to approve any GM food crop for commercial cultivation. The then Minister of Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh put on hold the approval of Bt brinjal by the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee [GEAC], after taking stock of public consultation across the country.

It would be wise for India not to allow imports of any GM products in country by invoking the Precautionary Principles of the Protocol.

The CoP-10 held in Nagoya in October 2010 had adopted the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 alongwith twenty Aichi biodiversity targets. These inter alia include -  By 2020 at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water [from the present 13%] and 10% of coastal and marine areas [from the present 1.6%] should be conserved. The rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests should at least be halved by 2020. Also by 2020 areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry should be managed sustainably. However, while adopting the ambitious Strategic Plan, CoP-10 could not agree on the targets for funding as the means to implement Strategic Plan and achieve Aichi targets.

In July this year India hosted the meeting of the Governing Body of the Inter-governmental Committee of the Nagoya Protocol to iron out some issues and prepare a draft plan.

CoP-11 is expected to come out with a road map for operationalisation of the Strategic Plan and Aichi targets, facilitation of early entry into force of Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing and determine targets for mobilizing resources for implementing the Strategic Plan.

On resource mobilization, presently, the international flows for biodiversity directly and indirectly are approximately $6 billion, which is about 4.7% of the global ODA of $127 billion. To enable CoP-11 to agree on targets for resource mobilization for implementation of the Strategic Plan, an assessment of the requirement of funding to meet the Aichi targets at the global level is necessary. Towards this, a number of activities have been undertaken in the inter-sessional period.

India is a recognised megadiverse country rich in biodiversity and associated traditional knowledge. With just 2.4% of the land area, India accounts for nearly 7% of the recorded species even while supporting almost 18% of human population as well as cattle population. The biotic pressure on our biodiversity is therefore immense.

For India, conservation of its biodiversity is crucial not only because it provides several goods and services necessary for human survival, but also because it is directly linked with providing livelihoods to and improving socio-economic conditions of millions of our local people, thereby contributing to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.    
Ashok B Sharma

Ashok B Sharma

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