As the desire to encompass bioengineered crops in some African counties continues to grow, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) is set to bring polices that would govern commercial planting and trade in genetically modified crop (GMO) in the region. Dr Belay Getachew, Comesa senior biotechnology policy advisor says the process of formulating the guidelines, which would also be applied for emergency food aid with GMO content that enters the region, is at a higher stage.
The process started with a team of experts drafting policies that are waiting for endorsement by Comesa’s council of ministers and head of state summit. Mr Arthur Makara, executive director of Scifode, who participated in drafting polices on commercial planting of GMOs says regional biosafety polices would provide guidance on how to manage the inevitable trans-boundary movement of GMOs. “The policy will provide Comesa member states with a mechanism for centralised regional assessment of GMOs destined for commercial planting,” Mr Makara said while presenting the draft in the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA) -Comesa Consultative meeting held in Kampala last week.
He added; “The new rules will also accelerate the adoption of the technology with enormous potential in reducing problems associated with food insecurity, meagre household income and vulnerability resulting from climate change.” Mr David Wafula of Programme for Biosafety Systems (PBS) says with the developments and increased field trials currently being undertaken in the region, a Commercial Trade Policy to guide Comesa counties on trade within the region and other parts of the world in respect to GM crops and their products is necessary.“We have to remember that GMOs are already in our food chain. Egypt, a Comesa member state, has approved commercialisation of GM maize and a number of Comesa member states trading under the South African Development Community (SADC) like South Africa, grow both yellow and white GM maize on commercial scale,” Mr Wafula says.
The formulation of policies, however, comes at a time when Comesa is also advocating for strategies such as “maize without borders” that aim at removing trade barriers in the movement of maize across member states. Maize is one of the most widely traded and distributed commodities accounting for 50 per cent of Comesa’s total grain import. Comesa, the largest trading economic bloc on the continent has 19 member states, a population of over 389 million people, an annual import bill of around $32b and export bill of $82b. Agriculture is the engine of the economics of member counties. Agriculture commodities are major drivers for growth in the intra-Comesa trade. Dr Theresa Sengooba, PBS Regional Coordinator said the meeting was responding to Comesa Ministers of Agriculture’s request of looking into mechanisms of addressing biosafety issues at the regional level to mitigate the potential impact of GMO on trade and food security.
“For countries with limited resources, regional cooperation is a realistic option for accessing and gradually building the necessary capacities for the effective implementation of international obligation and agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,” Dr Sengooba said. On emergency food aid with GMO content, Mr Wafula said a number of Comesa member countries are always in need of emergency food aid during human-induced situations or natural calamities that require humanitarian assistance and rapid responses to save lives. He cited a World Food Programme (WFP) report that shows sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 67 per cent of global emergency food aid deliveries in 2007 and about 85 per cent of the deliveries went to Comesa countries.
He said currently, member states in the region have no harmonised policy regarding procurement of food aid with GM content. He said member states who belong to multiple trading blocs have adopted a variety of approaches ranging from unconditional acceptance, “milling prior to distribution” guidelines endorsed by SADC countries. Mr Makara, explains that one of the guidelines for trading in GM seed recommends for a GM seed approved in a Comesa state which is traded to another member country where the originating and receiving environment are similar, approval should be granted.