Kenya at cross roads over biosafety law

By Dr Francis Nang'ayo

The recent move to publish the Biosafety Bill, 2007 will go down in the history of science and technology in Kenya as an important milestone in the long journey that this country has travelled in quest for having a functional and protective regulatory oversight system for exploitation of genetic modification (GM) technology.

This development heralds the critical final lap that will entail soliciting and accommodating comments from the public and eventual introduction of the Bill into the National Assembly to undergo the mandatory due process in order to become the long sought Act of Parliament charged with regulating activities pertaining to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But just what is the Biosafety Bill, 2007 all about?

The Bill seeks inter alia to, facilitate responsible research into, and minimize the risks of harm that may be posed by GMOs, ensure an adequate level of protection for the safe transfer, handling and use of GMOs that may have adverse effects on human health and the environment, and establish a transparent and predictable process for receiving and reviewing applications and making decisions, on the transfer, handling and use of GMOs and related activities.

Clearly even at this early stage, the Bill can in our view be judged as one that efficiently meets the contextual requirements of becoming a functional national Biosafety regulatory system.

Generally speaking the Bill appears comprehensive, legally adequate, transparent, flexible and adaptable and it is also consistent with Kenya’s national legislation as well as with international treaties and agreements that relate to biosafety. Most significantly, the Bill flows from Kenya’s National Biotechnology Development Policy that was approved by cabinet about in October 2007 clearly recognizing the role that modern biotechnology can play in poverty reduction, enhancing food security and conservation of the environment and biodiversity.

For instance, by covering activities ranging from research on GMOs, their contained use, risk assessment through to placement of the GMOs and their products onto the market, the Bill is comprehensive enough to adequately address the pertinent biosafety concerns along the GM technology development and deployment value chain.

At the same time, considering that modern biotechnology is a rapidly evolving discipline and therefore practically impossible to fully anticipate all possible risks likely to arise from its application, the Bill carries broad and open-ended provisions to accommodate not just products and applications being proposed today but products and processes that might become available in the foreseeable future.

Most importantly, since Kenya is a contracting party to several international agreements relating to biosafety such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the WTO Agreements, the Bill has been drafted based on the precautionary approach with a view to being as consistent to these agreements as practically possible. Given all these considerations, will the Biosafety Bill, 2007 certainly progress to become law?

Ideally, 21 days after its publication, the Biosafety Bill, 2007 is to be introduced into Parliament for First Reading during which stage the Minister for Science and Technology is required to introduce the Bill, just by reading the title of the Bill.

No comments or debate are made at this stage. This will be followed by the Second Reading seven days thereafter when the Minister will elaborate on the purpose and provisions of the Bill. It is at this stage that Members of Parliament are invited to make comments to contribute towards the betterment of the Bill.

As per established procedure, the Bill will then proceed to the Committee Stage of the House. At this juncture the House constitutes itself into a Committee of the House and the Bill is deliberated further.

The Bill also receives scrutiny, input and amendments from the relevant committee and in this case the Parliamentary Committees on Agriculture, Natural Resources and Trade before the Bill is then brought before the whole House for the Third reading.

At this stage, members vote to either pass or reject the Bill. They may also agree to pass it with the amendments made at the Committee stage. This then is the critical stage where the Bill may be defeated or passed for eventual progression to receive Presidential Assent that will make it an Act of Parliament.

Should the Bill get to be passed, a landmark development will have been achieved that would catapult Kenya into the ranks of African countries that to date have fully functional NBFs such as South Africa, Burkina Faso and Mauritius.

Kenya today therefore walks a tight rope and may either seize an opportunity for buttressing its legislative framework for appropriate oversight on activities relating to GMOs or squander it altogether and earn itself the naïve reputation of being overly too cautious with the risk of being paralysed by inaction.

Noting that Kenya is endowed with a great diversity of plant and animal genetic resources, that our economy is agro-based, that owing to growth in population the challenge of encroachment onto fragile environments has escalated, and that challenge of food insecurity is real to millions within our population, we think Kenya and indeed any African country suffering the same fate is better of with a law on GMOs than without having one.

After all, in the current era of globalization, GMOs and GM products are today part and parcel of commodities within the world trade arena. We must therefore carefully choose whether Kenya needs to be a bystander in the world at the risk being swamped with products from other parts of world that we may not be even be capable of regulating in the absence of an appropriate legislation, or proactively take appropriate steps to participate in the regulation of GM products through legislation as proposed in the Biosafety Bill, 2007.

The writer is the Regulatory Affairs Manager, African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

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