Feature Story

Bolstering biosafety in Southern Africa

March 12, 2021

A resident of Enato village on the fringes of Madagascar’s Tsitongambaraika protected area tends to her rice paddy.
A resident of Enato village on the fringes of Madagascar’s Tsitongambaraika protected area tends to her rice paddy. Local rice production is vital to food security on the island, with per capita consumption in excess of 140 kg per year. Photo: UNEP/Lisa Murray

The Global Environment Facility’s latest work program, approved by the GEF Council in December 2020, includes a series of projects designed to help countries protect and regenerate nature in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of these projects. For details on the Council proceedings, please click here.

The huge variety of life in Southern Africa is the result of its diverse climates, geology, soil, and landscapes.

However, this rich heritage is vulnerable, with many species and ecosystems threatened with extinction due to such threats as rising human population density, commercial agricultural practices, and forest encroachment.

A new GEF-supported project aims to address these challenges by strengthening biosafety measures in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, and Namibia, where the use of living modified organisms – known as LMOs or GMOs – is on the rise.

While genetically modified seeds and plants and other organisms affected by modern biotechnology are seen as possible solutions to satisfying growing food demand, they may also pose a threat to biodiversity in one of the most species-rich regions in the world.

Global concerns about the risks of LMOs led to adoption in 2000 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which came into force in 2003.

Both biosecurity and biodiversity conservation will be key priorities in the post-COVID world as countries seek to stem the rise in zoonotic disease outbreaks and focus on human health and food security.

With support from the Global Environment Facility, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) will work with the Regional Agricultural and Environmental Innovations Africa (RAEIN-Africa) and government ministries across the DRC, Madagascar, and Namibia to implement stringent biosafety frameworks to allow better monitoring, decision-making, and risk management.

“The goal of the Strengthening the Implementation of National Biosafety Frameworks in Southern Africa (SINBF) project is to ensure benefit from modern biotechnology whilst safeguarding biodiversity conservation,” said Doreen Mnyulwa, Executive Director of RAEIN-Africa.

Given that the participant countries are very different – with Namibia a transit route for many Southern African Development Community countries, the DRC a landlocked nation, and Madagascar an island – Mnyulwa said the lessons of the project would benefit many developing countries that are in similar contexts.

Biosafety laws and institutional frameworks are also at varying stages of development in the three participating countries. While the DRC has not yet passed a biosafety law, Madagascar has developed a draft version that is in need of review. Namibia’s biosafety act, passed in 2006, also needs review and updating in light of new biosafety trends.

“Although the three countries participating in this project are at varied levels of implementation of the national biosafety frameworks, their collaboration in this inter-country project will provide a forum for experience sharing and strengthening each country’s approach,” Mnyulwa said.

Completion of the project will see all three countries with up-to-date biosafety frameworks that comply with the Cartagena Protocol. All will also have the tools necessary for full implementation, including the human and institutional capacity to handle applications, weigh risks, and monitor for compliance and enforcement, and will be equipped to collaborate and share best practice among biosafety bodies in the region.

Alex Owusu-Biney, UNEP Portfolio Manager – Biosafety, said the Southern Africa project was the latest example of countries’ engagement and financial and technical support around implementing the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in a cooperative manner.

“The project provides a good opportunity to deliver tools and support to assist in the harmonization of national biosafety frameworks,” Owusu-Biney said.

“Critical lessons and knowledge generated will contribute to ongoing efforts in implementing the Biosafety Protocol in the region especially through envisaged partnerships with the Southern Africa Development Community and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, especially in transit and port management activities.”