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Biosafety: managing biotechnology risks

Many aspects of biotechnology and its application are largely uncontroversial, but the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has fuelled debate over the possible risks to human and animal health and the impact on the environment. Whilst the majority of scientists agree that the transgenic crops being developed and released are safe to eat, little is yet known about their long-term effect on human health. Regarding the environment, opinions differ on the likelihood and consequences of the risks posed by GMOs. But despite current concerns, GM technology continues to evolve with an ever-increasing list of GM food crops (cereals, tubers, vegetables and fruits) as well as non-food GM crops, including those being developed for the production of pharmaceuticals, plastics, fibre and fuel. Regulatory systems are already in place for the lucrative markets in developed countries. But many developing countries that wish to embrace GM technology to improve the lives of the poor, still need assistance in establishing a system to evaluate the risks and benefits of GM crops, as well as putting the necessary biosafety policies and regulations in place.

Scientist inspecting GM cassava trials (PBS)
Scientist inspecting GM cassava trials

However help is at hand. Launched in May 2003, the Programme for Biosafety Systems (PBS) is a consortium of international experts, national governments and regulatory organisations that helps African and Asian governments to implement the policies and procedures necessary to effectively evaluate and manage biotechnology risk and its impact. "Modern biotechnology has significant potential for improving agriculture in developing countries, but any nation wishing to benefit from biotechnology needs a functional biosafety system," said Dr. Joel Cohen, PBS Director at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), who leads the consortium. "Through this programme, we hope to assist our partners in determining how to best create such a system, making sound decisions based on scientific evidence."

From lab to farmers' fields

Many developing countries have vibrant biotechnology research programmes, developing a wide number of crop varieties mostly with resistance to pests and diseases but also with tolerance to abiotic stresses and improved nutritional content of staple crops. But a study published in Nature Biotechnology by Cohen on the development of GM crops in 15 developing countries reveals that the majority of the research is currently being developed in laboratory, greenhouse or confined field trials; very little is currently available for use by farmers. "Unfortunately, most poor countries lack the knowledge, capacity and funding to develop and comply with biosafety regulatory requirements," says Patricia Zambrano of IFPRI, who contributed to the study. "As a result, GM crops face difficulties moving from the lab to farmers' fields."

Uganda, however, may prove a leading light for countries in sub-Saharan Africa as it has recently completed its draft Biosafety Bill. The enactment into law is likely to pave the way for GM field trials and commercial releases, including Bt cotton, disease-tolerant banana, improved virus-tolerant potatoes, and insect-tolerant sorghum varieties, all of which are likely to be developed at the biotechnology laboratory of the Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute. Within East Africa, PBS is collaborating with national partners in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and the regional Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA) to develop a joint work plan for biosafety in the region. Further south, collaboration in Malawi is also strong and a good impact is expected at policy level. A series of national activities were conducted during 2004 to finalise Malawi's biosafety regulations and guidelines, and to train the newly constituted GMO Regulatory Committee.

Biosafety greenhouses, Kenya (PBS)
Biosafety greenhouses, Kenya

The programme's unique approach addresses biosafety as part of a sustainable development strategy embedded in agriculture-led economic growth, trade and environmental objectives. It aims to achieve this through activities that boost regional co-operation and research collaboration on biosafety-related issues, and which improve biosafety management skills, such as the ability to conduct safe experimental field trials. For example, during early 2004, the programme offered a course on food safety in India to researchers from South and Southeast Asia, and another workshop in Kenya focused on authorisation and safe conduct of confined field trials. In South Africa, PBS is collaborating with the biotechnology association AfricaBio to establish a regional information service on biotechnology and biosafety. The service includes a newsletter, Biobulletin, covering biodiversity, biotechnology, food security and biosafety - the last of which is the responsibility of PBS.

In Asia, activities are underway in Indonesia and The Philippines. Dr. Reynaldo Ebora, of the University of the Philippines Los Baños and PBS regional coordinator for Southeast Asia, feels strongly that there are many components to achieving a solid biosafety strategy within the region and that it is not just about putting policies and regulations into place. "Farmers also need to see for themselves the risks and benefits that GM crops may bring," he said. "Policy recommendations need to take all perspectives into account, and we feel PBS will help bring these perspectives together."

Note: The Programme for Biosafety Systems is a five-year programme funded by USAID.

Date published: March 2005


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