Modifications to the genetic material of an organism are generally targeted to improve or develop the characteristics found in these organisms. While this can potentially benefit humankind, researchers and society at large are concerned about the unknown effects of introducing these living modified organisms (LMOs) into the environment. LMOs are genetically modified (GM) organisms which are capable of self-replicating and can be a plant, animal or microorganism.
Realising that LMOs may have adverse effects on biodiversity, there was a need to address biosafety matters, which led to the establishment of the international regulatory framework known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. With the aim to encourage “safe trans-boundary movement, transit, handling and use of all living modified organisms that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health”, this Protocol was adopted on 29th January 2000 and enforced on 11th September 2003, establishing procedures and regulations for LMOs intended for environmental introduction or for direct use as processing, food or feed. The time was ripe for precautionary policies on such matters as not much was known about GM crops or organisms. Wide-scale commercialization of the produce thereof was therefore still a distant dream.
Years of continued research, testing, development and results related to LMOs eventually served to diminish much of the initial apprehension that fueled detractors, which meant that the Protocol, too, needed to be revised to address issues that followed these new findings. And so, after much negotiation, the Nagoya – Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol on Liability and Redress was adopted on 15th October 2010. This Supplementary Protocol further reinforces the Cartagena Protocol, focusing specifically on the “liability and redress for any damages onto biodiversity resulting from the introduction of these living modified organisms”.
The Supplementary Protocol was established not only to prevent damage to people and the environment but also ensure that the parties involved or responsible would be held liable for damage caused by LMOs. For a party to seek liability or redress, they must be able to show that the LMO has caused an “adverse effect on the conservation or sustainable use of biological diversity or risks to human health, the effect is measurable or observable for the purposes of attribution of impacts, and the adverse effect is significant”. However, it does not provide a definition for what constitutes as “significant” in terms of adverse effects.
Needless to say, this has been heavily opposed by many of the key players in the biotechnology industry, researchers and non-parties of the protocols, for this could mean their work in researching, producing and exporting LMOs and products involving LMOs would be hampered in one way or another. But as more and more large-scale environmental introductions of LMOs are being conducted, an international framework to address LMO-related concerns and biosafety issues is fast becoming a necessity.
Some LMOs that have long been around include transgenic corn, canola, cotton, soybeans and tomatoes. Biotech advocates argue that such LMO introductions do not cause adverse effects and may prove to be beneficial. For example, the introduction of transgenic BT cotton plants, which produces a chemical harmful to certain cotton pests, has not only reduced the incidence of pests in cotton fields, but also in crop fields for corn and soybeans in China. Most of these crops are used for produce, such as transgenic soybeans for soyfoods and corn for corn oil and syrup. However, the Supplementary Protocol covers LMOs and not the “products thereof”, as some countries argued that its inclusion would be beyond the scope of the Cartagena Protocol. The term “products thereof” was thus removed but it was agreed that the Supplementary Protocol could apply to adverse effects caused from products derived from LMOs as long as a causal relationship could be determined.
GM organisms, crops, food and products – whether local or imported – are not new to Malaysia. Our country has been actively researching transgenic oil palm, tungro virus-resisting rice, ringspot virus-resisting papayas and more. In 2010, Malaysia itself released 6000 GM Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in an effort to curb dengue fever. The male mosquitoes released carry a gene that kills offspring in the larval stage, subsequently reducing the number of offspring and life expectancy of these dengue-causing mosquitoes. There were, of course, several concerns. One was regarding how the male GM mosquitoes were chosen: Separation of male and female GM mosquitoes at the larval stage based on their size may not be an accurate method. Also, there are unknown consequences if the larvae – which were programmed to die – continue to live, breed and possibly pass on the inherited mechanism or worse, inherit a new characteristic. Such situations may be potentially dangerous as Malaysia is very biologically diverse and any ecosystem disruption or imbalance due to inappropriate handling and use of LMOs could prove to be disastrous. Nevertheless, no adverse effects have been reported so far and trials have been carried out in the Cayman Islands and Brazil. While some experts believe that the introduction of the GM mosquitoes may have been done prematurely and require further experimentation under rigorous safety protocols, researchers generally conduct such exercises on sound grounds and work on constant improvements to ensure all necessary steps to mitigate anticipated or unanticipated risks are taken.
Malaysia has its own Biosafety Act 2007 (enforced in December 2009) to fulfill its obligations under the Cartagena Protocol. This is an encouraging move to promote biotechnology in our country as long as the safety of the public and the environment is ensured. For effective implementation of the Act, a Biosafety Department was established as the center for all biosafety-related issues. As many institutions begin to embark on research and development, they are required to set up institutional biosafety committees for monitoring purposes to ensure all activities comply with the Act or any related regulations. Enforcement may still be at the infancy stage but remains a crucial piece of the puzzle, for any compromise in enforcing the act will waste all efforts in trying to promote safe and responsible biotechnology development.
With the rapid loss of our world’s biodiversity and its current fragile state, risk assessment and management in this aspect is essential. Both the Cartagena Protocol and Nagoya – KL Supplementary Protocol are meant to address various issues which arise from developing and distributing these LMOs. That said, consider this analogy: New pharmaceutical molecules usually carry some health benefits to the patient as well as side effects. However the decision to adopt the drug or not depends on weighing the benefits of use against the anticipated risks of use of the drug. It is the same approach with the introduction of LMOs in the real world.