The debate about biotechnology applied to agriculture is one of the most vocal and passionate debates that have been taking place in recent years. This is probably the consequence of the diverging appreciation that people and Governments have of the actual or potential risks and benefits that the products of agricultural biotechnology - genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and products thereof - can bring.
For some, they would help addressing some of the most serious problems that people, especially poor people in developing countries, face, such as starvation and malnutrition. For others, they could create serious and unpredictable health and environmental problems and also have negative economic repercussions, in particular in developing countries.
The proliferation of domestic biosafety schemes and the related authorization, labelling, traceability and documentation obligations are likely to further complicate international trade in genetically modified agricultural products and indirectly affect trade in conventional agricultural products.
For developing countries, agro-biotechnology is a particularly challenging phenomenon. They could be the main beneficiaries of it - if indeed agro-biotechnology keeps its promises - but they could also be the main losers if agro-biotechnology negatively affects biodiversity or if patented biotechnology disrupts traditional practices among farmers and makes access to seeds more difficult.
Countries are free to decide how to deal with agro-biotechnology and biosafety at the national level, but domestic legislation has to be WTO-consistent to the extent that it affects international trade. At the same time, this is a field where multilateral rules have been agreed upon in a separate legal instrument, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The interaction between this specific instrument and the WTO rules adds challenges to an already complex scenario.
While developed countries have established their national frameworks to deal with agro-biotechnology and biosafety focusing primarily on domestic priorities and strategies, most developing countries are doing so under less flexible circumstances. They increasingly seem to be expected to set up their national regulatory schemes based on the requests and expectations of their main trade partners. For developing countries, reconciling their trade interests with their responsibility for improving the quantity and quality of agricultural and food products made available to the population and with their commitment to environmental preservation is proving to be a difficult task.