Modern biotechnology promises remarkable advances in agriculture, medicine and industrial products. The genomes of many plants and animals are being mapped, and techniques are being developed to manipulate genetic material and fuse cells beyond normal breeding barriers.
These advances have led to the appearance of an entirely new category of life on the planet: Genetically modified organisms. Some of these may be beneficial to humans, but they need to be properly monitored and tested over extended periods to ensure their safety.
What do we mean by biosafety and why is it important?
Biosafety refers to the safe handling, transport and use of organisms – whether animals, plants or bacteria – that have been modified using modern biotechnology.
Living modified organisms, as described by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, are any living organism with a novel combination of genetic material obtained thanks to modern biotechnology. These modified organisms can bring benefits to agriculture, nutrition and health, but they can also – if not used safely – harm species and disrupt ecosystems.
The Cartagena Protocol aims to address these issues. Adopted in 2000 as a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Protocol entered into force in September 2003. It aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms that may have adverse effects on biological diversity and human health.
A project in the Caribbean, funded by the Global Environment Facility and implemented by UN Environment and the University of West Indies, seeks to assist 12 countries in complying with the Protocol. Started in November 2012, the $5.9 million project is set to run until 2018.
There is still a long way to go before all the countries have 100 per cent functional biosafety systems, but the project has already registered some major achievements. All 12 countries involved have completed draft versions of their National Biosafety Frameworks and are in the process of implementing them. The project has also helped to build the basic capacities that will enable the countries to take informed decisions in meeting their commitments under the Protocol.
What has the project achieved so far?
- A regional platform for biosafety knowledge management. This links the biosafety authorities of all the participating countries and enables them to seek technical advice and support. The platform also provides access to technical tools and guidelines.
- A regional network for the detection of genetically modified organisms. The University of West Indies is the host institution and three regional laboratories have been equipped to serve the countries. Basic detection capacities were also created at a national level to support the process.
- An MSc in biosafety through the University of West Indies. This has helped build local expertise in biosafety.
- Technical guidelines, hands-on training, and expert advice. The project has built the capacity of government officials and promoted networking and collaboration with international experts and institutions.
The countries involved in the project are Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
A related and subsequent Protocol, The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization, came into effect in 2014 under the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The Nagoya Protocol “provides a mechanism to ensure that the benefits of using genetic resources are shared in a fair and equitable way, to support continued resource conservation and sustainable use”, says UN Environment expert Makiko Yashiro.
Communications Unit, UN Environment, Latin America-Caribbean, noticias [at] pnuma.org, 507 3053103.
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