BRUSSELS, Belgium - International negotiations on the prevention of risks stemming from advances in biotechnology are set to resume in January in Montreal, in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The talks have been stalled since a failure to reach agreement in Cartagena, Colombia, in February. But an informal gathering of key figures in Vienna in mid-September resulted in a date for the resumption of negotiations, and made some technical progress. The Vienna meeting gave new political impetus to reaching a legally binding agreement on reducing potential risks from the transboundary movement of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The search is driven by the absence of any binding international agreements covering GMOs that cross national borders, whether as a result of trade or via accidental releases. In Cartagena, officials were unable to finalize a text, in the face of strong resistance from the U.S. delegation to the draft. At the time, developing countries and the European commissioner responsible for environment strongly criticized the U.S. stance, which was widely seen as inspired by international biotechnology firms.

Colombian Environment Minister Juan Mayr Maldonado has now won wide agreement to conclude a Biosafety Protocol. In Vienna he brought together representatives of all the negotiating groups that emerged during the failed Cartagena talks: the Miami Group (Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, the U.S. and Uruguay); the European Union; the Central and East European countries; the Compromise Group; and the Like-minded Group of countries, which includes most developing nations.

Answers still need to be found to some of the questions that torpedoed the Cartagena talks, such as the scope of the protocol. Some delegations want it to cover only GMOs intended for introduction into the environment, such as seeds, while others argue that it should include agricultural commodities and processed products containing dead modified organisms or non-living modified organism components. There are also outstanding difficulties on liability, on how potential socio-economic impacts should be minimized (particularly the difficulties for traditional crops that are faced with competing GMO imports), and the protocol's relationship to other international agreements, particularly those under the World Trade Organization. Another concern is that many developing countries lack the technical, financial, institutional and human resources to address biosafety.