Negotiators from nearly 90 countries struck a deal in Kuala Lumpur on Friday requiring detailed information on shipments of GM crops such as maize, cotton and soy, to help importers decide whether to accept them, going way beyond what exporters wanted.
They also set terms for talks to thrash out a framework to fix blame for problems due to trade in the controversial technology, along with systems of redress and enforcement.
Ethiopian negotiator Tewolde Egziabher, who led in talks for many developing nations represented at the week-long Malaysian meeting, highlighted the liability deal as key.
"It's badly needed. Not as much for the redress side of it but for the caution that we will force on those who export," he said as formal talks drew to a close.
It's badly needed. Not as much for the redress side of it but for the caution that we will force on those who export. The temptation is to say: We have sunk so much money into it, even if it's not entirely safe, we will commercialise"
He said genetic engineering was a technology developed by the private rather than the public sector, meaning risk assessment and research by the authorities were all the more important.
"The temptation is to say: We have sunk so much money into it, even if it's not entirely safe, we will commercialise."
The United States and Australia were among major farm nations regretting what was agreed under the United Nations Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, saying it would be hard to put into practice.
Talks under the protocol are intended to curb potential risks arising from the cross-border trade in GM species.
But neither Washington nor Canberra is a party to the law, having chosen not to sign.
US negotiator Deborah Malac, whose delegation faced accusations all week of championing the case of biotech companies such as Monsanto over wider concerns, told reporters the deal was skewed towards importing nations.
"A lot of the decisions here have been made by the importers without a real understanding of the implications. We just have to live with the consequences"
"A lot of the decisions here have been made by the importers without a real understanding of the implications.
"We just have to live with the consequences," she said.
Opponents of genetic modification say its effects on the environment and the safety of food remain unproven, while supporters say the technology has been adequately tested.
EU hails move
The European Union, at loggerheads with the United States for years over biotech safety issues, welcomed Friday's outcome.
"This meeting could have gone wrong but it proved that the protocol is sound, it's on the map," Christoph Bail, a lead EU negotiator, said.
"Maybe it will also provoke industry to realise that this is now the framework and it will be difficult to shy away from it."
Global sowing of GM crops rose to 67.7 million hectares last year, according to ISAAA, an industry-backed group promoting biotech as a way to halt hunger.
The vast bulk was in the United States and Argentina, with Canada, Brazil, China and South Africa as secondary growers.