Concerns over dearth of biosafety regulations  


Bereng Mpaki

Lesotho risks developing weeds that are extremely resistant to herbicides and insecticide resistant pests through unmonitored usage of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

This concern has emerged among scientists who felt that, lack of relevant biosafety regulations was making the monitoring and management of GMOs usage in the country difficult.

Although they come with certain advantages such as production of insecticide resistant crops, herbicide resistant crops, increased nutritional value and taste of food, as well as improved shelf-life of food, among others, local scientists said usage of GMOs should be regulated to avoid potential risks they may attract.

These potential risks, they added, include rise of insecticide resistant pests or herbicide resistant weeds. Other potential risks are production of toxins and allergens, both potentially harmful to the people and the environment.

GMOs are crops and livestock whose characteristics have been improved through a scientific technique generally referred to as modern biotechnology. The nutritional value of genetically enhanced foods is not affected.

Modern biotechnology manipulates the Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) of organisms (either crops or livestock) to boost agricultural productivity in order to address the issue of food insecurity.

According to the Ministry of Tourism, Environment and Culture’s National Biosafety Frameworks Project Coordinator, Maboi Mahula, for GMOs to be used responsibly, modern biotechnology should be adopted through the enactment of relevant laws to protect the people and the environment from potential risks that it can attract.

Mr Mahula explained that legislation should be complemented by well-equipped environmental laboratories for research purposes as well as human resource skills base.

However, in the case of Lesotho there was little progress towards putting in place the necessary regulatory framework that would facilitate the enforcement of environmental protection from uncontrolled biotechnology adoption.

“A Draft Bill on biosafety has been in the works for the past 11 years, and approval by parliament was twice affected due to prorogation and dissolution of parliament which occurred in the past four years,” Mr Mahula said.

Regionally, he said, Lesotho was lagging-behind other Southern African countries in adopting and embracing biosafety precautions.

“Due to the delays in passing the Biosafety Bill into law, there may be much damage being done through contamination.”.

He said under the Bill, GMO foods that are imports, exports, in transit, or are placed in the market, needed to be clearly identified so that consumers are empowered to decide whether to or not consume the products.

Although GMOs currently imported in the form of agricultural products, as well as seeds, are regulated through issuance of import permits, they are not inspected for the potential harm they may cause to the environment.

Lesotho is a net importer of food from mostly South Africa, where the bulk of food production is done with the assistance of biotechnology.

Issues related to the potential risks posed by modern biotechnology are globally regulated under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) which came to life in 2000.

The objective of CPB is to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified of organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks on human health.

Under this protocol, parties are expected adopt appropriate measures aimed at preventing and if appropriate, penalize transboundary movements of living modified organism (LMO’s).

On his part, Dr Relebohile Mahloane, from the Department of Livestock Services at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security said GMOs should not be demonized as there are benefits that can also be accrued from their use.

“GMOs are not monsters, they have been around for a long time. Importantly, we need to manage their usage through regulation as they can contribute to improving food security,” Dr Mahloane said.

He said infrastructure for continued research was needed to develop greater understanding of the long-term effects of GMOs on humans and the environment, which are still unknown.

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