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Africa's concerns over biosafety

African countries are concerned about their ability to meet their olibigations for the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety. (©FAO/G Napolitano)
African countries are concerned about their ability to meet their olibigations for the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety.
©FAO/G Napolitano

Since the fourth meeting of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, concluded in Bonn, Germany earlier this year, preparations are underway for the next major meeting (COP-MOP5*) to be held in Nagoya, Japan in 2010. Over 140 countries have now signed up to the Protocol but there are concerns, particularly amongst African countries, about their capacity to implement the guidelines. African delegates have also called for greater funding and support to strengthen their negotiating powers prior to meetings in Nagoya, and to improve the currently poor reporting progress within the region.

The Cartagena Protocol, an international agreement on biosafety and supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, came into force in September 2003. Fifty countries accepted and signed up to the Protocol guidelines, which set out rules and procedures for the handling, movement and use of all living modified organisms (LMOs) that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity or have risks to human health.

To encourage knowledge-sharing and to assist governments in implementing these biosafety obligations, a database known as the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) was established. It is designed to place particular emphasis on the needs of developing countries and to assist in capacity building. Signatory countries to the Protocol are legally obliged to keep the database updated.

However, there is still concern that most African countries lack the human and technical capacity to implement the Protocol and to fulfil the BCH requirements. In particular, African scientists have stated that negotiators are particularly ill-prepared to discuss Article 27 of the Protocol on liability and redress. This defines who is responsible for redress and recall in case a biotechnology product harms the environment, farmers' livelihoods or human health, and who should pay compensation or take responsibility for the legal consequences.

African need for funding support

Most African countries are keen to embrace biotechnology to develop and grow GM crops. (©FAO/P Lowrey)
Most African countries are keen to embrace biotechnology to develop and grow GM crops.
©FAO/P Lowrey

Participants, attending the monthly Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) meeting in Nairobi in June 2008, heard that more funding is required to hold national consultations on liability and redress, capacity building and obligations to the BCH. Kenya, for example, is apprehensive that amending Article 27 to allow for an international legally binding provision might prejudice the legitimacy of its Biosafety Bill on civil liability, hence the need for national consultation before COP-MOP5. Clauses 16 and 17 of Kenya's Draft Biosafety Bill highlight protection from personal liability and liability for damages respectively.

Betty Kiplagat, a Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) lawyer and delegate to the COP-MOP meetings, says the African delegation in Bonn emphasised the need for an agreement on liability and redress as priority and called for integration of biosafety into development strategies and donor programmes.

The COP-MOP4 urged stronger collaborations between countries and academia to develop biosafety programmes. They requested that the Global Environment Facility (GEF) consider funding programmes on notification procedures, risk assessment and management, enforcement, liability and redress measures, as priorities for biosafety during its next funding phase (2010-2014). GEF was also called to support capacity building in sampling and detection of LMOs, setting up laboratories and training local regulators and scientists.

Need to develop standards

COP-MOP4 further encouraged countries to develop standards on handling, transport, packaging and identification of LMOs. The countries were also required to complete and return to the secretariat an assessment of their biosafety training needs, and to ensure their civil liability rules provide for cover from damage to biodiversity or human health resulting from transboundary movement of LMOs.

GM Bt cotton trials have been approved in Uganda (World Bank/Arne Hoel)
GM Bt cotton trials have been approved in Uganda
World Bank/Arne Hoel

Harrison Macharia of Kenya's National Council for Science and Technology (NCST), the focal point for biotechnology in Kenya, says they would partner with South Africa ahead of the next round of talks. Because of its functioning biosafety framework, South Africa can offer assistance in obtaining field trial permits. "They have a Biosafety law called GMO Law, a biotechnology policy and a national biotechnology strategy, states Macharia. "This means collaboration with South Africa can assist Kenya in developing technologies and biosafety frameworks rather than reinventing the wheel," he says.

Like Kenya, activities are ongoing in Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania to enhance application of biotechnology. While Uganda has established a biocontainment facility and approved GM cotton and banana trials, Malawi enacted a biosafety law in 2002 and is accepting transgenic food aid, which is milled at the point of entry to avoid it being used for planting. Tanzania has developed a Genetic Modification Bill and has run one transgenic trial on cotton.

*Since the coming into effect of the Protocol in September 2003, the governing body, Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties (COP-MOP) has held four meetings: Kuala Lumpur (2004), Montreal (2005), Curitiba, Brazil (2006), and Bonn, Germany (2008)

Written by: Zablon Odhiambo

Date published: September 2008


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