Developing Countries' Deficiencies Could Pose Biosafety Threats, UN Warns

According to a two-year United Nations study of internationally funded training programs in biotechnology and biosafety, as many as 100 developing countries are unprepared to effectively manage and monitor the use of modern biotechnologies, leaving the world community open to serious biosafety threats. The report, from the UN University Institute of Advanced Studies, says training and management deficiencies in most countries of Africa, Central Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean, "are so pervasive and broad that there is no effective international system of biosafety at the moment."

In addition, the global resources available from donor countries and agencies, already inadequate to help developing countries meet basic international agreement obligations, are being cut back. It is estimated that, over the past 15 years, just $135 million has been invested globally by public and private sources in capacity building in developing countries.

The UNU-IAS assessment, released at this month’s Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn, takes no sides on genetically modified organisms and other biotech-related controversies, according to the UN. It was designed simply to shed a neutral, independent, and objective light on international biotechnology and biosafety training programs intended to allow developing countries to make and implement informed choices, the organization said.

Authors Sam Johnston, Catherine Monagle, Jessica Green, and Ruth Mackenzie say the use and prevalence of biotechnology in agriculture and other sectors seems certain to increase. And the widespread ratification of the world's Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which will mark the 5th anniversary of its coming into force on Sept. 11, 2008, "demonstrates the desire for biosafety measures to go hand in hand with the development of biotechnology." However, they cite the lack of technical, policy, and enforcement capacities in developing countries as "a potentially contributing factor to the spread of bioterrorism"--the deliberate release of naturally occurring or human-modified bacteria, viruses, toxins, or other biological agents.

Most available capacity building resources in developing countries to date have been devoted to developing policy and regulatory regimes, including approval procedures and risk assessment, the study notes. Scientific training has focused mostly on risk assessment and, to a lesser extent, on the detection of genetically modified organisms. The authors offer a suite of recommendations, emphasizing that capacity needs should be identified locally, not internationally, and point to success stories on which world efforts should be built.

The findings raise fundamental questions about "the extent to which capacity deficits are undermining the promise that advances in biotechnology would directly address the needs of the poor," says UNU-IAS Director A.H. Zakri. "There may also be broader implications of a capacity deficit in biosafety and biotechnology. These may include an impaired ability to meet the challenges of global issues such as climate change, or to protect humans and the environment against biosecurity risks." To access the full report online, click here.

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