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Biosafety matters: Implementing the National Biosafety Framework

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by Sylvester Lynch (PhD.)

The scientific community agrees that genetically modified (GM) or biotech crop plants and the development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) offer directly the potential for increased agricultural productivity. While there are benefits to be derived from modern biotechnology, there exist concerns about their uses and possible impact.{{more}} The technology must therefore be regulated by having in place, the necessary policies and legislation to ensure adequate protection for human and animal health and the environment.

The National Biodiversity Strategic Action Plan (NBSAP) has been developed and is grounded in the core values of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – a global treaty that provides for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and benefit-sharing derived from the use of genetic resources. The CBD opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 and entered into force in December 1993. A supplementary agreement to the CBD is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB). The CPB is to reconcile the respective needs of trade and environmental protection with respect to a rapidly growing global biotechnology industry. It is a legally binding protocol, entered into force in September 2003 and to which most CARICOM countries, St Vincent and the Grenadines included, acceded to. As of March 2015, the protocol has 170 parties, which includes 167 United Nations member states. This is a clear sign of the confidence global community places in the protocol.

For the Caribbean to exploit modern biotechnology in light of international and regional trade there must be the common understanding of a regional approach and cooperation to apply a similar level of biosafety protection in compliance with the CPB. Accordingly, under the auspices of CARICOM, member states have developed and begun implementing National Biosafety Frameworks that are to be effective, operable, transparent and sustainable. This is effected through a regional project implemented by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The executing agency at the regional level is the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus; and at the national level, the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment.

St Vincent and the Grenadines is at the stage of reviewing a draft biosafety policy and bill, re-examining an administrative system and is engaged in capacity building in order to have the expertise and facilities to conduct risk assessment and GMO detection tests. The draft policy is very instructive and points, among others, to the Government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ obligations:

a. to ensure that suitable safety measures for the use of modern biotechnology founded on the

i Precautionary Principle are provided for;

b. to apply biosafety measures to make certain that modern biotechnology does not have an adverse effect on conservation, sustainable use of biological diversity, human and animal health and socio-economic development; and

c. to be aware that conservation of biological diversity, human and animal health may be threatened by unlawful, deceitful or dishonourable acts including modern biotechnology.

Absence of laws that could specifically regulate trade in modern biotechnology is far more threatening to sustainable development than where laws are enacted to establish effective methods to control the importation, management and use of GMOs or their products. In St. Vincent and the Grenadines, to implement the CPB using existing laws required a multiplicity of amendments which is legally undesirable; so biosafety legislation needs to be developed. Establishment and consolidation of biosafety framework is a country-driven process. The public is to be involved in framing the policy and legislation and in the decision making process relative to the applications for the importation of a living modified organism (LMO) / GMO. The public must be assured that its concerns are seriously considered. Also, to understand that informed decisions on GMOs are made on the bases of science and reliable data.

Dr Lynch is the National Project Coordinator (Biosafety)in the Ministry of Health, Wellness and the Environment

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