The Biosafety Protocol meeting in Brazil has concluded. But, as Ochieng' Ogodo reports, many African countries are concerned about their ability to implement the measures they've signed up to.
As delegates to the week-long international meeting of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety pack their bags to return home, the issue of how exactly the Protocol is to be implemented in their countries remains unresolved.
Major issues that hang before them include capacity building, technology transfer and labelling. All are especially relevant for African and other developing countries.
Meme Baba Cisse, a delegate from Senegal, says biosafety is an issue that requires expertise – and Africa is still behind.
"Most countries in Africa and even in Eastern Europe lack the scientific capacity both at the human and technological level to implement the Protocol and there have to be serious developing-developed country efforts to help build human and equipment capacities on very good terms."
He says the Protocol is particularly important for Africa, where there is a major dependence on food imports and aid. But technology transfer, he argues, starts with technological education in the receiving country.
"Countries must have national strategies on what technologies they need. If they need support then you must go for support, but human capital is a must."
Meeting international standards
Hartmut Meyer, biosafety adviser to the German technical cooperation agency GTZ, agrees that Africa currently does not have the resources and capacity to implement the Protocol and needs the assistance of the developed world.
"There is only one established laboratory in Africa that is able to test GM traits in products in accordance with international standards, and it is in South Africa," Meyer says.
Other bioscience laboratories in Africa, he adds, do not conform to international standards and may not be useful for inspection and certification. "Even if you were to avail the technology, who will use it?" he asks. Technological assistance had to be twinned with human capacity development, including training and home-grown courses in national universities.
Jarle Harstad, lead evaluation officer at the World Bank's Global Environmental Facility (GEF), says there has been some movement in developing countries but a lot still needs to be done – and quickly.
"Some [countries] today have National Biosafety Frameworks while others are completing their frameworks through their parliaments. But there are outstanding issues like capacity for implementation and funding," he says.
The extent of technical and human skills is also related to political decisions on whether to restrict or allow Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Experts say those who allow GMOs must be prepared to set up elaborate systems to deal with GMOs inside their countries, while those that ban them need robust border controls.
But these systems are largely lacking on the African continent – and Harstad suggests operating common regional laboratories to secure international standards on testing and monitoring.
Looking for sincere support
Given the cost of setting up laboratories for testing for GM traces in products, Harstad says there should be collaboration between developing countries and donors on a fifty-fifty basis. But where more affluent countries are involved they should pay 75 per cent of the costs for tests to determine whether or not food imports contain GM.
"The developed world should be willing to share technical advancements on favourable terms to enable Africa and other developing nations to implement the Biosafety Protocol."
However, some campaigners and non-governmental organisations say major GM producing countries, especially the US and Canada, are being insincere in refusing to sign the Protocol.
"The Biosafety Protocol is like a compromise document – the minimum required – but even in its current weak form, major GM producing countries have refused to ratify it, thus negating its implementation," says Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth, Nigeria.
According to Bassey, multinational companies that have made heavy investments in GM are more concerned about profits than potential safety or environmental risks. With the support of their governments, he says, they have continued to undermine any move that would lead to the effective implementation of strict regulatory and legal frameworks on biosafety.
But Harstad thinks that the Protocol will keep such companies in check. The principle of 'polluter pays', he says, will largely safeguard the environment and people against irresponsible use of biodiversity: "Nobody should cause harm to the environment without paying for the consequences. The Protocol is setting the parameters."
Delegates from developing countries at the conference agree that they are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the huge challenges posed by the Protocol. The full extent of these challenges is likely to become more evident once they are back home from Brazil.
Ochieng' Ogodo is a Kenyan journalist who specialises in science reporting. His coverage of GM issues has won him a Panos fellowship to report from the CBD meeting in Brazil in March 2006.