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Towards a regional approach to biotechnology policy in Southern Africa: Malawi
Phase I: Situation Analysis and Stakeholder Views

Bunda College of Agriculture
September 2005
Charles Mataya
University of Malawi – Lilongwe


Abstract

This work is part of a bigger project which aims to document a balanced review of the technical information needed to guide SADC countries’ biotechnology policy choices.

The general perception of GM crops among the respondents interviewed in Malawi is that genetic transformation has potential to improve food security, but they fear the risks to the safety of humans, animals and the environment. This situation is orchestrated by lack of public awareness due to insufficient information on the long-term effects of introducing GM crops into the country. The government position is that developments in scientific and technological fields elsewhere will affect Malawi and that the country cannot afford to remain behind in the GM revolution. However, there is a need to build capacity to manage and regulate the use of biotechnology in the country. Against this background, a comprehensive Biotechnology Policy is being prepared, which will include all aspects of biotechnology, GMO and bio-safety, social and ethical issues and all other concerns in environment, human health, ecology, plants and animals, industry, trade, food and nutrition, as well as crosscutting issues.

Background

Fear of the unknown harmful effects on human, animal health and the environment of genetically modified food aid (maize) during the 2001/02 food shortage prompted the government to pass the Malawi Bio-safety Act (MBA) in 2002. The fear was heightened by a wide rejection of consuming GM maize during a summit held in Maputo prior to taking delivery of the first USA GM maize consignment. The position on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) of the European Union, one of Malawi's major donors in agriculture and food security, further consolidated the country's resolve to pass the MBA. The MBA provides for safe management of biotechnological activities. In specific terms, the Act can be applied to:

  • regulation of genetic modification of organisms (plants and animals);
  • importation, development, production, testing, use and application of GMOs;
  • the use of gene therapy in animals, including humans.
The MBA provides for:

  1. establishing a Bio-safety Fund [Part III] that will be used to support implementation biosafety activities in the country;
  2. issuing biosafety licenses s and permits to stakeholders or applicants in various sectors of national development [Part IV]. This is intended to safeguard best management practices in the biotechnological system;
  3. handling, transport, packaging and identification of GMOs and products thereof to avoid adverse effects on the environment [Part V];
  4. promoting sales of genetically modified organisms [Part VI];
  5. inspections of GMOs and products containing GMOs [Part IV];
  6. miscellaneous provisions for secrecy, offences and penalties for offences and establishment of biosafety regulations [Part IX];
Consistent with the MBA, draft generic biosafety guidelines have been developed to guide the implementation of biosafety activities. However, sector-specific biosafety guidelines and regulations should be developed to address sector-specific biosafety requirements.

GMOs continued to be debated after the MBA was passed. On 17 July 2003, a majority of stakeholders observed that the Bio-safety Act (2002) had some implementation difficulties since it was hurriedly done because of the food crisis, and concluded that the country needed a sound policy and legislative framework for the management of GMOs and modern technology in general. For example, one of the participants observed that the name 'Biosafety Act' does not reflect the contents of the said act and further argued that the act should be renamed the GMO Act, as in other countries, to appropriately reflect its contents.

Subsequent consultative fora (12 November 2003, and 9-10 June 2004) further consolidated the resolution reached during the forum on 17 July, that the country should develop a comprehensive Biotechnology Policy that would include all aspects of biotechnology, GMO and bio-safety, social and ethical issues and all other concerns in ecology, environment, food and nutrition, human health, industry, plants and animals, and trade, as well as crosscutting issues. This recommendation was based on the premise that biotechnology encompasses more than biosafety and that the approach would avoid developing several pieces of legislation to address the same issue. Currently, the processing of the biotechnology policy is in its advanced stages. The final draft document is expected to be delivered for review by October 2005.

However, controversies surrounding GMOs emanate from lack of awareness and information about the positive and negative effects of consuming or introducing such products into the country. Although the process of developing the biotechnology policy has been open and transparent, debate on the effects of GMO technology may have been inadequate due to lack of background information and may have ignored and undermined the concerns of some stakeholders. Parallel investigation by the Food, Agriculture and National Resources Policy Analysis Network aims to enrich the process of consultation by providing additional information to certain groups of stakeholders in the country.

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