Ensuring the principles of environmental democracy are upheld in relation to modified organisms/genetically modified organisms (LMOs/GMOs) can help countries to address biodiversity loss and support progress on a number of Sustainable Development Goals, in particular Goals 2 (zero hunger), 15 (life on land) and 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions).
In order to strengthen countries’ capacities in the field of LMOs/GMOs, the secretariats to the Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention) and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity jointly organized the recent fourth Round Table on Public Awareness, Education, Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice regarding LMOs/GMOs.
The Round Table provided an opportunity to take stock of successes and challenges, and to identify synergies regarding the promotion of the effective implementation of the Aarhus Convention in the context of LMOs/GMOs, its amendment on public participation in decisions on the deliberate release into the environment and placing on the market of GMOs (GMO amendment) and article 23 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on public awareness, education and participation. The event was organized under the leadership of Austria. It brought together representatives of governments, academia, the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), judiciary and other experts engaged in the implementation of both instruments from numerous countries of Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Furthering ratification and implementation
Albania is the most recent Party to the Aarhus Convention to accept the GMO amendment (3 September 2020). The country’s legislative framework on GMOs includes transparency and public consultation during risk management, and a new GMO/LMO law is under preparation. Challenges in the area of LMOs/GMOs include coordination of and cooperation amongst a range of institutions, from ministries and inspectorates to the State police.
Armenia shared the progress made towards ratifying the GMO amendment and its efforts in implementing the Cartagena Protocol. The new law was adopted in 2023, alongside related legal acts. Armenia has begun the process of ratifying the GMO amendment and has held workshops to enhance national capacity on the Biosafety Clearing-House with different government representatives.
Sharing information through electronic tools
Examples regarding access to information were shared by Indonesia, Guinea-Bissau and CropLife International, an international trade association of agrochemical companies. Parties demonstrated the importance of cooperation and exchange at the regional level, e.g., through the “Asia Biosafety Family”. Private sector efforts to promote access to biosafety information include the development of online databases to enhance public understanding of GMOs and biosafety issues.
Public awareness and education – key for better understanding LMOs/GMOs
Representatives of Georgia and Kenya shared their experiences on public awareness of and education on LMO/GMO-related matters. In Georgia, this includes a range of educational and awareness initiatives, including educational materials for schools and online training programmes for teachers and students with practical components delivered in the field. A network of teachers supports knowledge-sharing in this area. The Kenyan legislative framework supports public education, awareness and participation in biosafety matters. However, challenges raised include objective measurement of the effectiveness of public education and awareness initiatives, along with limited resources.
Strengthening youth engagement can also play an important role in addressing challenges, as highlighted by participants from Ayb High School Eco Team and the NGO Public Awareness and Monitoring Centre in Armenia who shared insights from a survey which revealed a lack of awareness of GMOs among young people in the country. Consequently, they initiated educational activities.
A participant from Bosnia and Herzegovina presented eKonsultacije – a tool to help public authorities to disseminate information and involve the public in decision-making on draft public policies, also related to GMOs. A participant from Mexico detailed the importance of including Indigenous and Afro-Mexican communities in biosafety decision-making, developing information materials in Indigenous languages and increasing online outreach.
A representative of the NGO Ecoropa/European ECO-Forum expressed concern about attempts to exclude new types of GMOs, such as “Synthetic Biology”, from approval, other decision-making, risk assessment and labelling; and the recent proposal by the European Commission to deregulate many GMOs as “New Genomic Techniques”. Such deregulation would dispense with the need for both decision-making on these GMOs and, consequently, for public participation.
If the outcomes of public participation are visible in the final decision, then this is a good indicator that the public has been effectively involved in the decision-making process. Discussions highlighted that public authorities should value public involvement in decision-making, as input from a diverse public contributes to better and more acceptable outcomes.
Training session on access to justice
The Round Table featured a training session focusing on access to justice regarding LMOs/GMOs, aiming to increase awareness of legal entitlements, types of legal challenges that can be launched, and the carrying out of legal procedures under the Aarhus Convention and target 22 of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework granting the right to access to justice relating to biodiversity for Indigenous Peoples and local communities.
This was complemented by experiences in access to justice shared by the European Union regarding a case about cultivating GMO maize and by the NGO Journalists for Human Rights/European ECO-Forum regarding the situation and the challenges in achieving access to justice in environmental and, in particular, GMO-related matters. Despite advances in regulations, public engagement and capacity-building, issues persist, such as conflicts of interest and a lack of transparency, regulatory clarity and enforcement of regulations.
The Chair shared major take-aways from the two-day event, including the need to:
Promote cooperation between government institutions and civil society in LMO/GMO-related matters. This includes robust legal and regulatory frameworks and fostering cooperation between relevant authorities on issues such as food safety, health, economy and law enforcement.
Stimulate the use of citizen science, crowdsourcing and Indigenous knowledge in LMO/GMO-related matters.
Allocate suitable human and financial resources, including for setting up laboratories.
Strengthen public authorities' capacity to handle information access and public participation in the context of LMOs/GMOs.
Promote international cooperation on environmental justice, and ensure access to justice, including for vulnerable groups in the context of LMOs/GMOs.
Improve coordination between national focal points of the Aarhus Convention and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Allocate resources for public awareness-raising and education on GMO/LMO-related matters.
Encourage interested States Members of the United Nations to accede to the Aarhus Convention, its GMO amendment and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.