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Developing Country Biosafety Capacity 'Inadequate'

Naomi Antony

As many as 100 developing countries are unable to manage and monitor the use of modern biotechnologies adequately, a new report reveals.

This situation will only improve with increased funding and the identification of biosafety training needs at a local level, say the authors of the two-year study, published this week (27 May).

The report — published by the Japan-based United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies — assesses the major internationally funded biosafety-training programmes in the developing world.

Biosafety training deals with the safe application of biotechnology. The international donor community is encouraged to provide funding for training through commitment to legally drawn-up instruments such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety — an international agreement that sets the global minimum standards.

Sam Johnston, a senior research fellow at the institute, and colleagues incorporated a variety of methods into preparing the study, including country visits and interviews with a range of stakeholders.

They found that, at present, the majority of developing countries are ill-prepared to manage modern technology and implement their National Biosafety Frameworks.

The authors cite a lack of funding as one of the key reasons for this deficiency.
"We found that, over the last fifteen years, just US$135 million has been invested in [biosafety] training. That's not even an order of magnitude close to what's required," Johnston told SciDev.Net.

Biosafety training has so far tended to focus on risk assessment and the detection of genetically modified organisms. But the report concludes that there are many other capacity-building needs remaining, such as technology transfer and promoting South–South collaboration.

Johnston warns that the potential consequences of having a non-functional biosafety framework — such as bioterrorism, and costs to the environment, human health and trade — have not been given proper consideration.

Julius Mugwagwa, a biosafety policy researcher at the UK-based Open University, told SciDev.Net, "[Developing countries] want to be able to use and apply biotechnology for their own purposes. The bottom line is, as much as biotechnology has got some risks, there are benefits as well — and developing countries want to reap these."

Johnston believes that developing countries can play a part in identifying their capacity-building needs.
"Developing-country scientists have an important role in ensuring that international donors are aware that there is a need [at the local level]. In the developing world, this need has not been articulated strongly enough."