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Most developing countries ill-equipped to ensure global biosafety: UN University

A two-year UN study of internationally funded training programmes in biotechnology and biosafety warns that as many as 100 developing countries are unprepared to effectively manage and monitor the use of modern biotechnologies, leaving the world community open to serious biosafety threats.

The report, from the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, says training and management deficiencies in most countries of Africa, Central Asia, Oceania and the Caribbean, are so pervasive and broad that there is no effective international system of biosafety at the moment.

In addition, the global resources available from donor countries and agencies, already inadequate to help developing countries meet basic international agreement obligations, are being cut back. It is estimated that, over the past 15 years, just $135 million has been invested globally by public and private sources in capacity building in developing country.

The UNU-IAS assessment, released at this months Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, takes no sides on genetically modified organisms and other biotech-related controversies. It was designed simply to shed a neutral, independent and objective light on international biotechnology and biosafety training programmes intended to allow developing countries to make and implement informed choices.

Among other questions examined:

  • Are current capacity building initiatives directed towards particular policy or regulatory outcomes?

  • Do they drive the policy process in developing countries?

  • Are capacity building initiatives in biosafety and biotech demand driven?

  • How can integrated capacity building be provided given lack of international consensus about nature and extent of risks posed by Living Modified Organisms?

  • Are regional approaches appropriate for capacity building in biosafety and biotech?

  • Is there sufficient donor coordination to avoid inappropriate duplication?

  • Are existing activities sustainable?

  • How should capacity building differentiate between developing countries at different stages of uptake of modern biotech?

  • How can capacity building gaps and problems be addressed?

Authors, Sam Johnston, Catherine Monagle, Jessica Green and Ruth Mackenzie say the use and prevalence of biotechnology in agriculture and other sectors seems certain to increase. And the widespread ratification of the worlds Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which will mark the 5th anniversary of its coming into force on Sept. 11, 2008, demonstrates the desire for biosafety measures to go hand in hand with the development of biotechnology.

However, they cite the lack of technical, policy and enforcement capacities in developing countries as a potentially contributing factor to the spread of bioterrorism -- the deliberate release of naturally-occurring or human-modified bacteria, viruses, toxins or other biological agents.

Among other points and observations:

  • Globalization, resulting in the increasing flow of information, people and resources, has weakened the power of states to manage technology development and will make it harder to develop an effective international regime;

  • The lack of capacities and the associated policy vacuum allow for vested interests to predominate, dampen support for research and create hesitation on the part of governments to properly engage with the issue;

  • A country that lacks capacity is more likely to bring in very restrictive systems in order to counterbalance its deficiencies and undermines their ability to consider less contentious uses of biotechnology, such as in diagnostics, industrial enzymes, pollution remediation, combating drought and reversing salinity;

  • The lack of capacity creates dependency in developing countries;

  • The use of genetically-modified crops in many developing countries makes future trade bans and disruption likely;

  • The lack of an effective biosafety regime undermines the potential for developing countries to consider the role of biotechnology in critical areas such as addressing climate change.

Most available capacity building resources to date have been devoted to developing policy and regulatory regimes, including approval procedures and risk assessment. Scientific training has focused mostly on risk assessment and, to a lesser extent, on the detection of genetically modified organisms.

The authors offer a suite of recommendations, emphasizing that capacity needs should be identified locally, not internationally, and point to success stories on which world efforts should be built.

The findings raise fundamental questions about the extent to which capacity deficits are undermining the promise that advances in biotechnology would directly address the needs of the poor, says UNU-IAS Director A.H. Zakri.

There may also be broader implications of a capacity deficit in biosafety and biotechnology. These may include an impaired ability to meet the challenges of global issues such as climate change, or to protect humans and the environment against biosecurity risks.


Contact: Terry Collins
United Nations University

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