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The Convention on Biological Diversity promotes the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of biological resources, and the equitable sharing of benefits from genetic resources. Nations began signing this United Nations treaty 13 years ago. More than 180 countries have now adopted it. Only seven — including Somalia, Iraq, and the United States — have not. After the convention was opened for signature at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, President Bill Clinton signed it early in his administration. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee endorsed ratification by a vote of 16-3 in 1994. Yet the full Senate has never voted on the treaty. The refusal of the United States to ratify the convention is shortsighted. It hampers the U.S. contribution to global environmental efforts. It undercuts U.S. interests in agriculture, biotechnology, and global development. And at a time when people around the world too readily criticize the United States for going its own way without appropriate international consultation, the United States does itself no favors by not sitting down at this important table. FOOD BUSINESS The issue of genetically modified foodstuffs provides a good example of how much the United States loses by not ratifying the convention. In 2000, the convention promulgated its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which establishes that countries may restrict the import of genetically modified foods for health or environmental reasons and mandates certain export notification requirements. The United States is arguably the leading proponent of the safety, efficacy, and value of bioengineering foodstuffs. But during protocol negotiations, U.S. representatives encountered significant obstacles in advancing their perspectives because of their nonparty status. For example, the United States could not speak out or vote at the final deliberations, so it had to rely on proxies. This made negotiating arduous, and it compromised the ability to shape the protocol’s final provisions. And that was, and is, unfortunate. The Biosafety Protocol continues to serve as the recognized forum for discussing guidelines and procedures for the transboundary movement of genetically modified organisms. Its deliberations help set the direction for the policies of individual nations. The Biosafety Protocol thus has a significant effect on shaping receptivity to biotechnology, especially in the developing world. There, regulatory uncertainty and public fears have slowed down the fair appraisal and distribution of the fruits of U.S. biotechnology. Concerns in the developing world have also complicated their own development of genetically modified items for local use or export. Perhaps most notable, the issue of genetically modified food has created controversy between the United States and the European Union. The United States has brought a major trade challenge to the EU’s opposition to genetically modified products, and the World Trade Organization is expected soon to issue its decision on this unfortunately embittering issue. The dispute centers upon whether restrictive policies curtailing the importation of these products into the European market violate the EU’s obligations under the WTO. This dispute underscores the profound differences between the two economic superpowers regarding how biotechnology is to be handled in transatlantic commerce. Ideally, these issues would be resolved through the compromises of diplomacy and reasoned policy discussion in expert circles, not the absolute rulings of litigation. But that’s much harder to do when the United States is not part of the Convention on Biological Diversity. In the broadest sense, if the United States became a full party to the convention, it would acquire an important opportunity to depolarize the global perceptions of biotechnology and present a better case about the benefits of biotechnology to the world. Even now, there is a slow-moving discussion under the Biosafety Protocol about the identification of genetically modified products, which would entail providing importers with notice of the possible presence of genetically modified ingredients. This is an important issue for U.S. agricultural and biotech industries because inflexible labeling requirements could stigmatize goods and hinder commerce. GENETIC RESOURCES If the Convention on Biological Diversity’s bearing on the United States’ marketing of food products and biotechnology was not reason enough for ratification, convention members decided in February 2004 to launch negotiations on a new global regime on the use of genetic resources. The less-developed world has long complained that its genetic wealth — tropical microbes, cellular creatures, medicinal plants, etc. — was being exploited by the wealthier industrialized world without proper reimbursement. This new plan calls for an international system “to promote and safeguard the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.” For farm products in particular, the convention’s genetic-resources regime will cover agricultural commodities not already covered by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (which the United States signed in 2002). The new system will also cover invaluable genetic materials that the pharmaceutical industry could use to develop new critical medications. Even if the regime that emerges from these various efforts is not legally binding, it will establish norms for commerce and access to genetic resources that will significantly affect U.S. business and research. Indeed, international ways of doing business on genetic resources are already changing because of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Right now, U.S. companies seeking to do business around the world may have to comply with emerging regulatory procedures in which the United States lacked adequate input. Increasingly, American companies, organizations, and governmental offices may also find themselves at a disadvantage in securing equal access to the genetic resources of the world. IMPROVED RELATIONS In addition to the benefits to U.S. business, ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity would generally bring the United States improved relations with the developing world and Europe. The convention is especially valued by developing countries. They view it as a means for making more equitable arrangements for exploitation of the economic wealth in nature, as the operative instrument that ensures the consensual dissemination of biotechnology, and as the protector of biodiversity and indigenous peoples. A willingness to join the Convention on Biological Diversity may also enhance U.S. positions in the midst of the World Trade Organization’s ongoing Doha round of trade negotiations, especially as to issues of opening markets to U.S. imports and finding development applications for biotechnology. Additionally, and auspiciously for those in the United States who think biotechnology could foster development in poorer nations, the convention now offers a separate technology transfer program, agreed to in 2004. This program encourages better communications networks and more financing for efforts to put sophisticated science to use in the developing world. The hope is that such technology can aid in the reduction of poverty and hunger, which are U.N. Millennium Development Goals and part of the convention’s sustainable development thrust. With regard to Europe, U.S. ratification of the convention would present new opportunities for reaching understandings on contested agricultural and environmental issues. For example, on the debated issue of the EU’s “precautionary principle,” which enables restrictive environmental regulations on the basis of uncertain risks, the United States and Europe could use the forum of the convention to better explore how to address each other’s concerns. Also, the convention is advancing, albeit slowly, a liability system for environmental damage. It would be in the interest of the United States to work with the European Union to preclude further estrangement such as has occurred over Biosafety Protocol issues. SAVING THE PLANET Finally, and no less important than these compelling commercial reasons, the Convention on Biological Diversity is globally regarded as the world’s pre-eminent conservation instrument. Under the auspices of the convention, the world works to address the loss of species and genetic resources. The convention has thematic programs focusing on the world’s threatened biomes, including forests, inland waters, marine and coastal areas, and dry and subhumid lands. It is noteworthy that the congressionally mandated, George W. Bush-appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy was under no mandate even to mention the Convention on Biological Diversity, yet in recommending a new executive-branch oceans committee, it called for that committee to “coordinate an expedited review and analysis of the ocean-related components” of the convention and to determine whether treaty ratification would be beneficial. An examination by the new White House Committee on Ocean Policy of the convention’s pertinence for U.S. marine and coastal issues would be one practical way to begin a renewed review of the convention. It is ironic that the United States is in a distinct minority in failing to ratify the convention. Historically, U.S. refusal to ratify resulted from an odd mix of special-interest-group concerns and generalized skepticism to U.N. initiatives. The mix manifested itself in extreme form when certain agricultural groups (i.e., cattle and sheep interests) opposed the convention for fear that its terms — in particular, its alien species provision — would restrict their ranching operations. This was an unjustified fear, but it nonetheless acquired potency, spurred on by the U.N. fears. Yet American scientists have played an esteemed role in the conceptualization of biodiversity and in conservation efforts to stem biodiversity loss. Certainly the leadership of U.S. scientists, conservationists, and policy-makers would be appreciated in convention meetings once the United States became a full party. The United States would inevitably assume a certain leadership role on conservation as well as commercial issues. Ratification of the convention therefore offers the United States an exceptional synergy: the opportunity to do great good for the environment, the opportunity to better advance U.S. self-interests, and the opportunity to work within an important forum shaping diverse legal norms. Almost the entire world has adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s time for the United States to do the same.
Richard J. Blaustein is a D.C. attorney who writes on environmental matters.

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