Time to update biocontrols

Editorial, Normal

The National, Tuesday 11th June 2013


WORLD population increase is showing a slowdown in recent years, and it may well be stabilised by the end of the century. 

Nonetheless, the population increase of many developing countries will progress  through the next century and their food production will face new challenges against unpredictable climate change.  

Biotechnology can accelerate the development of enhanced crops adapted to the new environment by using molecular information and tissue culture.

Biotechnology, in this context, refers to any modern technology used to manipulate the cells or genetic materials of living organisms.

Biotechnology must also respond to public concerns regarding safety of its products against environmental and health risks (biosafety).  

The Asia-Pacific region comprises developing countries and  each country’s development levels in biotechnology vary. 

Regional cooperation in capacity building, research and development and establishment of regulatory compliance norms should facilitate the transfer of the technology to farmers. 

To facilitate this, the Asia-Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (Apaari), of which NARI is a member, hosted a meeting on biosafety issues in Bangkok, Thailand, in  April.  The meeting reaffirmed the need for cooperation among member countries in a number of areas.

Biosafety refers to the protection of the environment against uncontrolled introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  A related term, biosecurity is defined as the prevention of pest and disease problems by appropriate quarantine measures.  Apaari is an excellent forum for networking and knowledge sharing in biosecurity and biosafety among member countries.  

Reports of new pests and diseases have been rising in recent years, possibly due to climate change.  In this regard, it is important to exchange information on pest and disease incidences within the region.  For example, coffee berry borer and an aggressive strain of banana wilt fungus that are currently absent in PNG are some of the concerns that require close monitoring to prevent inadvertent introduction from the Papua province of Indonesia. 

PNG ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2005 and it entered into force in January, 2006.  The ratification requires country-specific regulations and laws as well as a system that is necessary for effective implementation of the protocol.

As a signatory of the protocol, PNG is required to provide regular updates on the implementation of the protocol in the country. 

First national report on the implementation of the Cartagena Protocol was submitted to Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) in August, 2008.  This report pointed to the serious lack of capacity and funding to establish the law and associated enforcement mechanism.

Three years later, the second national report was submitted to the CBD. 

According to this report, the situation remains largely the same.  

Biosafety matters of the country remain under existing mechanisms which are not specific to biosafety.

The lack of specific laws that regulate the movement and use of GMOs poses serious concerns.  

It may be allowing unregulated inflow of GMOs and materials derived from GMOs without the knowledge of any government authority.  

In fact, “anecdotal evidence of intentional and unintentional introduction of GMOs” has been reported in the second national report. The lack of clear procedures to handle GMOs prevents the country from reaping the benefits of improved crops that are proven safe.  

Besides, research activities that involve transformation with foreign genes have become an indispensable tool in modern agricultural laboratories. But without clear guidelines, researchers in PNG may hesitate to use the technology, due to the possibility of hefty penalties which further sets back PNG scientists in terms of capacity in biotechnology.

It has been eight years since the draft bill was written, and the advancement of biotechnology is quickening. Therefore, it is necessary to revisit some of the articles in the bill which may have become obsolete already.  Laws that dictate modern technology must be revised frequently to be current with the technology.

Despite some minor problems, however, the draft bill is thought to adequately address the issues concerning the research and commerce of GMOs in PNG. Implementation of biosecurity and biosafety requires modern infrastructure and a technically trained workforce.  

NARI is opening the Dr Ghodake National Biotechnology Centre at its Mamose Regional Centre near Lae this month.  This new facility is expected to enhance biosecurity and biosafety capacity in the country and facilitate networking among Asia-Pacific countries, particularly with our close neighbours, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.