BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union (EU) is strongly supporting the elaboration of a Biosafety Protocol which is based on the precautionary principle and which balances environmental and trade concerns. The final negotiation meeting for the protocol, an international agreement for the protection of the environment, opened in Cartagena, Colombia, on Feb. 14, and the talks run through Feb. 23.

But the EU is warning that the successful conclusion of the negotiations is endangered by "extreme positions." In a statement issued before the meeting, EU Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard said the main exporters of genetically modified agricultural crops seem to want to void the protocol of any real content, while, on the other hand, a number of developing countries risk sabotaging the talks by pursuing objectives in areas peripheral to the main issues. She urged all governments to come to Cartagena with a willingness to reach an agreement.

The negotiations have been ongoing since the second conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in November 1995, in Jakarta. That meeting was a response to the growing concern over developing countries' abilities to deal with the importation of living modified organisms (LMOs) deriving from modern biotechnology, which might be harmful to their biodiversity. It was decided that the protocol should create a framework for the international trans-boundary movement of LMOs derived from modern biotechnology and that, for this purpose, the core of the protocol should be the establishment of an "advance informed agreement" procedure.

Widespread LMO Release Already Happening

Since 1995, the parties to the convention have met five times to negotiate the protocol, most recently in the two final weeks of August 1998. The European Commission said governments must respond to the concerns - expressed within the scientific community and by the public at large - about the possible impact of biotechnology on biodiversity. Widespread dissemination and release of LMOs into the environment are taking place in the context of experimental field trials, large-scale agriculture, and marketing of commodities. International action based on the precautionary principle is necessary, the commission said.

But the commission said protection must be achieved in a way that does not unnecessarily hinder trade, and many developing countries should abandon "positions that appear to be less realistic and difficult to [resolve] in the present round of talks."