Approved Comesa GMO policy a worry

Saturday October 26 2013

By ISAAC KHISA Special Correspondent

Civil society organisations operating in the Comesa region are worried that recently approved regulation on the commercialisation of genetically engineered crops could increase the cost of farming, which would severely affect small-scale farmers.

Last month, the Comesa Council of Ministers approved the Seed Trade Harmonisation Regulations Policy 2013, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which seeks to harmonise biosafety policies to facilitate free trade in GMO seeds within the bloc.

But four civil society organisations — Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa; the Southern and Eastern African Trade, Information and Negotiations Institute; the Zimbabwe Organic Smallholder Farmers Forum and the Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum — want the policy scrapped.

“We call upon donors to desist from supporting the implementation of these regulations, which undermine our national sovereignty and policy space,” said the civil society groups in a joint statement.

“We call for an open and transparent process that involves small-scale farmers, to discuss appropriate seed laws for Africa, where the obligation of protecting biodiversity, farmers’ rights and overall ecological productivity is entrenched as a primary objective,” they added.

Comesa is made up of  20 member states: Burundi, Comoros, DR Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sudan, South Sudan, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Already, Egypt and Sudan have enacted national biotechnology laws that allow them to commercialise their GM crops like cotton.

Kenya set up a Biosafety Authority in 2009, which approved a few applications for the import of GM foods, mainly for humanitarian aid for neighbouring countries. However, in November last year, the country imposed a ban on GM foods citing potential health risks — a claim some scientists denied.

Kenya plans to commercialise GM cotton next year whereas Uganda plans to follow suit in 2017. Both countries are carrying out confined field trials on GM bananas, cassava and Irish potatoes.

Scientists, told The EastAfrican that the regulation is aimed at promoting trade in genetically engineered products within the bloc.

“The Comesa policy aims to guarantee safety to all its citizens dealing in GM crops. Some members are already trading in these commodities and they may find their way in a country that has no law,” said executive director at the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development Arthur Makara.

Mr Makara said the new regulation is also expected to help countries without a law on genetically engineered crops to trade in the commodity upon application and approval from the Comesa secretariat.

The policy is geared towards a regional approach to biotechnology and biosafety policy and to provide a platform where policymakers, scientists and the private sector can interact and consult.

The policy also looks to harmonise national biosafety policies that can hamper cross-border movement of essential commodities especially maize and cotton.