By Femi Peters – Biosafety measures are generally known as measures used for ensuring the safe development, transfer and application of modern biotechnology. The relationship between the biosafety and modern biotechnology are closely linked as pronounced by Minister of Forestry, Honourable Jato S Sillah as he was quoted saying “The need for safe application of biotechnology was recognized in 1992 during the Earth Summit on Environment and Development.”
Preceding this recognition and the provision of the convention on biological diversity”, “the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to regulate the transboundary movement, transfer and handling of living Modified Organisms resulting from Modern biotechnology that may have an adverse impact on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking account also risks to human health was negotiated and agreed upon.”
He further added that the Gambia may sooner or later apply biotechnology in various fields or development be it agriculture, medicine or industry in order to provide the needs of the people. That it is imperative for biosafety mechanisms to be in place to regulate such applications. “At the national level this will ensure that the Gambia is ready to protect her people and the environment from potentially dangerous or hazardous biotechnology application and products,” he says.
Applications of these technologies are used in biological systems, living organisms or their derivatives to modify products or processes for a specific use. Traditionally biotechnology has been applied in foods and beverages as well as human and animal medicine fields, the organisms produced by such techniques are known as Genetically Modified Organism (GMO).
Worries of most stakeholders in this sector are centered on what the impact of these novel organisms (GMOs) with novel combination of genetic material may be in the receiving environment, given the fact that nothing of that kind has been taking place before in the Gambia. Adding that worries of disease vectors crossing natural barriers becoming more virulent as well as fear of GMO’s transferring their transgenetic characteristics to non target organisms with unpredictable results most be considered. Presently a legal framework on biosafety is underway in the Gambia and once validated would be sent to the National Assembly, this initiative is meant to help The Gambia to increase its protection status on site of GMOs and LMOs.
Negative public opinions have been witnessed across globe especially in Africa evident when Monsanto announced its decision to remove their seed cereal business from Europe, and environmentalists crashed a World Trade Organization conference in Cancun that promoted GM foods and was sponsored by Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). Some African nations have refused emergency food aid from developed countries, fearing that the food is unsafe. During a conference in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Kingsley Amoako, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), encouraged African nations to accept genetically modified food and expressed dissatisfaction in the public’s negative opinion of biotechnology. Kerry Howley of the Reason Magazine made reference to how fear is being used to deny Africa cutting-edge technologies. Howley also writes on how activists descend on Africa every time new technologies emerge. They she said, using apocalyptic theories, misadvise and mislead Africans into not embracing these technologies. She said African countries have shunned GM foods on the advice of consumer advocacy groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who also have strong presence in Africa.
Except South Africa, no other African country is currently growing genetically modified (GM) crops. We’ve read reports of countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe turning away food from the World Food Program (WFP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USaid) on suspicions they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs.) Many African countries have passed laws to completely bar GM crops although changes are currently been observed.
Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist at Wellesley University also wrote an article on how Biotechnology is being kept out of Africa and Africa ought to be allowed to freely debate GMOs. The latest report on the state of agricultural biotechnology in the world shows more and more farmers are growing GM crops. It’s hard to believe that more than 21 countries that are currently growing these crops are wrong and only Africa is right that the GMOs are bad.
Keeping GMOs out of Africa did not yield any benefits because our local production with vast research efforts by our scientist have not been able to secure the much required production levels to bring Africa out of food insecurity. Some of the benefits associated with the GMOs are as follows: Pest resistance as crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries; herbicide tolerance for some crops as it is noted that it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides (weed-killer) to destroy weeds, which is time-consuming and expensive, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn’t harm the crop plant or the environment; Disease resistance which is a much needed quality since they are many viruses, fungi and bacteria that cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically-engineered resistance to these diseases; Cold tolerance GMOs allow for products which unexpected frost cannot destroy their sensitive seedlings as antifreeze gene from cold water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco and potato; Drought tolerance/salinity tolerance can be incorporated as the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers will need to grow crops in locations previously unsuitable for plant cultivation; Nutrition needs can be meet as Malnutrition is common in third world countries where impoverished peoples rely on a single crop such as rice for the main staple of their diet, If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated; Pharmaceuticals Medicines and vaccines often are costly to produce and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes; Phytoremediation is techniques which allows Plants such as poplar trees be genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollutions from contaminated soil so that Soil and groundwater pollution are cleared up and this problem is solved in all parts of the world .
Notwithstanding GMO based product should also be well labeled to give the consumer the right of choice as it is noticed in departmental stores, people always prefer to purchase organically cultivated foods then those fertilized artificially. People have the right to know what they are eating, from past events, industries has proven to be unreliable at self-compliance with existing safety regulations. Labeling of GM foods and food products is also a contentious issue. The FDA’s current position on food labeling is governed by the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which is only concerned with food additives, not whole foods or food products that are considered “GRAS” – generally recognized as safe. Food labels must be designed to clearly convey accurate information about the product in simple language that everyone can understand. This may be the greatest challenge faced in the new food labeling policy; how to educate and inform the public without damaging the public trust and causing alarm or fear of GM food products. In January 2000, an international trade agreement for labeling GM foods was established. The policy states that exporters must be required to label all GM foods and that importing countries have the right to judge for themselves the potential risks and reject GM foods, if they so choose
ECOWAS not left out in the acceptance of the GMOs, as Mr. Ernest Aubee, Head of Agricultural Division ECOWAS commission commented recently, during a workshop in the Gambia saying modern biotechnology has an enormous scientific potential of promoting and providing solutions to such urgent needs for food, health, agriculture, among others. However, there are negative effects if not properly managed with some precautions has significant risk to the environment, human and animal health and socio-economic impacts. Adding that over four years ago in Accra, Ministers of ECOWAS member states adopted an action plan on development of biotechnology and biosafety in the sub-region.
He said “the WAEMU is also preparing to launch a similar initiative as part of its program under the regional biosafety as a result was invited for the fact that all eight member states of WAEMU are also member states of ECOWAS. Consultation meetings at the highest level between the three institutions leading to the adaptation of a joint road map and a tripartite team was set up to purpose a draft of the biosafety framework for West Africa”.
Dr Henry Carayol, an environmental Lawyer said all Gambians and non Gambians alike have a legal obligation to protect all Gambians. Laws of the country such as the Banjul Declaration make it mandatory for all persons residing in the Gambia to protect the Fauna and Flora of the country. “The revised laws of the Gambia provides for the heinous offence of cruelty to animals and also the parks and wildlife act which incorporated or domesticated the convention against international trade on endangered species,” he concluded.