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July 20, 2008

Malawi edges closer to formulating biotechnology legislation

Malawi has become the latest sub-Saharan African country to approve a National Biotechnology Policy aimed at providing a framework for effective implementation of biotechnology programs and activities.

The Policy is an answer to a study conducted in Malawi in early 2000 supported by the Africa Biodiversity Network (ABN) to establish the status of Genetic Engineering (GE), Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) and GE food aid in Malawi. It found that genetic engineering in general and agricultural biotechnology in particular is only at a rudimentary level in Malawi. It is confined to technologies such as tissue culture and application of molecular markers within the University of Malawi.

The study revealed that Malawi has no biotechnology policy save for the pieces of legislation mentioned above. But there is full recognition of the need to develop a national biotechnology policy.

A Cabinet meeting chaired by President Bingu Wa Mutharika, who is also the minister for Education, Science and Technology approved the policy recently. In a foreword to the policy, the President said his government recognized the pivotal role biotechnology can play towards economic growth and poverty reduction. He said biotechnology will facilitate Malawi's speedy attainment of capacity to be food secure, create wealth and achieve socio-economic development.

The Policy provides an enabling framework to promote and regulate the development, acquisition and deployment of relevant biotechnology products to reposition Malawi from being a predominantly importing and consuming economy to a manufacturing and exporting one.

It is expected to create an environment that would allow biotechnology business to flourish. With the Biosafety Act already in place since 2002, the approval of the policy is expected to hasten the country's plans to commence contained trials of Bt Cotton and GM Cassava.

Over the past decade, issues of genetic engineering, intellectual property rights and genetically modified food aid have gained new research importance in many countries including developing nations.

Third generation biotechnology (genetic engineering) involving recombinant DNA has not yet been implemented in Malawi and there have been no official trials of GM crops due to lack of technical capacity, clear policies, legislation, regulations and guidelines to drive the process.

Even government research stations have not conducted genetic engineering activities despite harbouring interest in the technology.

However, the government recognized the importance of science and technology in national development evidenced by the establishment of the National Research Council of Malawi (NRCM) in 1974, a body mandated to manage science and technology for national development.

To strengthen activities of NRCM, a first science-related policy, the Science and Technology Policy was adopted in 1991, which unfortunately never bore fruit due to lack of proper vision and funding problems.

A new Science and Technology policy was adopted in 2002, which was followed by the passing of the Science and Technology Act in 2003 in an attempt to revive the role of science and technology in the country' development.

The latter piece of legislation calls for the establishment of the National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST), a body with similar mandate to NRCM, which it is assumed, will be dissolved once NCST becomes functional.

Being a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol of 2000, Malawi passed the Bio-safety Act in October 2002 to provide a legislative framework for the safe development and application of biotechnology and its products in Malawi.

However an examination of the Act reveals that several key areas required by the Bio-safety Protocol are not covered by the Act.

A closer study of the Act shows that its main aim is to manage the safe and responsible use of GMOs and gene therapy and experts are recommending that the title of the Bio-safety Act be amended to GMO Act and the aim of the Act be amended to center on the management of GMOs and gene therapy.

The policy framework will set out to address aspects including strengthening of infrastructure to facilitate biotechnology research, development and commercialization; strengthening of capacity for development of biotechnology within government, research institutions, academic institutes and the private sector and establishment of a commitment to finance biotechnology and bio-safety by the government, private sector and funding agencies.

Malawi often finds herself entangled in food security problems largely attributed to low crop productivity. The rural population, consisting of over 60% of the total, is often vulnerable since produce from one harvest often does not last until the next harvest.

In such cases, food aid is sought from the region and/or beyond to bridge the gap and Malawi was in such a situation in the 2001/2002 growing season when it was faced with a serious hunger crisis in recent memory. The crisis was so bad that the country was declared in a state of disaster.

Flow of food aid followed the declaration and in the process 300MT of genetically modified maize was supplied to Malawi through the World Food Programme (WFP).

The consignment became an issue of great debate in the country as various stakeholders and commentators advanced views on it largely over its threat to local maize genetic pool if the grain got planted.

The government finally decided to mill the grain so that it is given out as flour instead of whole grains to curb any intentions of planting the grain by the recipients.


Africa Science News Service

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