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This is a guest post from the BiotechBlog Intern,  Fintan Burke. Fintan is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. Do you have a response to Fintan’s post? Respond in the comments section below.

As trade featuring Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) began to grow to an international scale during the late 20th century, the Convention on Biological Diversity determined that a framework should exist to ensure information was provided for LMO imports. A convention meeting at Cartagena, Columbia initiated negotiations for an international protocol in biosafety needs. For Africa, a continent increasingly reliant on LMOs to maintain a stable food supply, this protocol would signal the beginning of a convoluted path to establishing its own biosafety standards across dozens of countries.

When negotiations for the Cartagena Protocol stalled in early 1999, both the African Group in the Convention for Biological Diversity and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU, now the African Union) came together to collaborate on a model biosafety law for the African continent. In 2001 a draft was finalised by an OAU working group and presented to representatives of 28 African governments, who welcomed the model law as it addressed several factors the Cartagena protocol then lacked, such as an LMO approval process and liability legislation. By this time negotiations on the Cartagena protocol had resumed with the establishment of an intergovernmental committee (chaired by Ambassador Yang of Cameroon) to facilitate the preparations for the first meeting of the protocol parties.

The Cartagena Protocol finally came into force on September 2003. This, along with increased regional biosafety developments in Africa, prompted a revision of the African biosafety model law. The model law draft from 2001 was sent to major signatories of the Cartagena Protocol for advice on how to review it. This also had the effect of allowing countries that may have a future stake in African agriculture to have more of a say in African biotechnology standards. In August 2007, the Revised Model Law was created and in November presented to the African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology. By this point, the Model Law had been instrumental in developing the biosafety acts of several African countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana and Mali.

2007 also heralded the arrival of Kenya’s National Biotechnology Development Policy and Biosafety Bill into its parliament for debate. Kenya, the very first country to sign the Cartagena Protocol, had its biosafety bill highly promoted by Dr Noah Wekesa, head of the newly created Ministry of Science and Technology. This bill was encouraged both by Cartagena Protocol directives and by the need to replace Kenya’s outdated Science and Technology Act of 1980. Though initial parliamentary debates were highly supportive of the bill, the 2007 General Election caused a political shake-up that resulted in a new coalition government and a reintroduction of the bill to parliament. This time, however, the bill was met with opposition from parliament members and anti-biotechnology lobbyists. The same report notes that one legislator, Silas Ruteere, claimed that the bill breached the Cartagena Protocol by not educating the public about LMOs. Other protests included negative impacts on trade and a declining quality of food should LMOs be introduced. These objections were largely ignored by parliament, which eventually passed the biosafety law in 2009.

Kenya’s challenge of slow legislative process and misinformation from lobbyists is not unique. The National Biotechnology and Biosafety Act of Uganda also faced a lengthy delay, despite both stakeholders and the Minister for Agriculture calling for a speedy approval to maintain Uganda’s agricultural and commercial viability. Despite the imperative placed by the Cartagena Protocol and the framework provided by the African Model Law, many African countries are still producing legislation that varies between each other. While both Kenya and Uganda were still able to initiate field trials for GM maize in 2010, stricter biosafety laws in Tanzania prevented researchers from doing the same. In a survey of African biotech stakeholders carried out by Obidimma Ezezika et al, such variety and protracted development of these biosafety laws was down to poor communication of the benefits of GM crops, a distrust of the private sector and a conflict with religious ethics.

It is peculiar that a continent so heavily involved in establishing the international biosafety standard should itself falter so close to home. The most recent report on the growth of biotech crops notes that the fastest growing adopters of biotech crops were developing countries; Mexico, Brazil, India and China. The absence of African countries is indicative of the slow development of its own policies.

Fortunately, progress towards harmonisation of biosafety law in Africa is taking place. A 2011 African Union report has recognised the inconsistency in African biosafety law and has emphasised the need to combine regional biosafety practices. Recently the African Model Law has also undergone revisions to reflect the finalised Cartagena Protocol and its amendments. For Africa a speedy adoption may be the only solution, as the lack of a legal biosafety framework is beginning to cost them in terms of foreign investment in research. For a continent infamous for its temperamental climate, the need for a stable LMO based crop for commerce and stability cannot be overstated.

About the author:

Fintan Burke is a student at the School of Biotechnology at Dublin City University. His main fields of interest include biomedical therapies and recombinant organisms.  Fintan may be contacted at fintan.burke2@mail.dcu.ie .