NEPA Moving to Implement Biosafety Legislation


The National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA), through the National Biosafety Framework Project, is moving swiftly to have new legislation put in place to deal with biosafety, which is safety from exposure to infectious agents.
At a public consultation on the National Biosafety Framework Project held on September 21 at the Knutsford Court Hotel, Chief Legal Officer at NEPA, Laleta Davis-Mattis, noted that there were in fact several pieces of legislation on the books that dealt with various aspects of food safety and standards, but it was necessary to have new laws that were specific to biosafety. The Chief Parliamentary Counsel is making preparations to draft the legislation.
She said that consumers were entitled to make informed decisions about what they consumed and that such legislation would assist in this process. “Any law that addresses biosafety will have to address handling, transfer, transport, use and release of Living Modified Organisms,” she explained, adding, “the objective is to protect biodiversity and human health”.
In June 2001, Jamaica signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety indicating its support for the objective and provisions of the protocol. Jamaica will ratify once the requisite laws have been implemented. She said one of the principal elements of the Protocol was the issue of advanced informed agreement, which stipulated that if any country was going to export Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) there had to be a written agreement.
“So, the country of import must be informed and the country that is sending the LMOs here will have to provide accurate information so that we can act on it and basically we can use this information to make a decision whether or not we should allow these products into the country,” the Legal Officer expounded.
In Jamaica, traditional biotechnology has been employed in the development of indigenous cattle breeds. Modern biotechnology allows scientists to manipulate genes and the process is not limited to related species and may include the transfer of genes between non-related species. The organisms derived from this process are known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or LMOs.
She further said that before Jamaica accepted any LMOs, a risk assessment had to be conducted to ensure that there would be no adverse effect on human health or the environment as a whole. Mrs. Davis-Mattis stressed that the issue of labeling under this legislation would also be very important.
“Many of us don’t eat pork, but you would want to know that you are eating a fruit that has some gene from the pig. At least if you are informed as the consumer that these products contain genetically modified organisms, then at least from an informed perspective, we will know where we are going,” she stated.
Mrs. Davis-Mattis pointed out consumers had to be vigilant about what they consumed and what was allowed into the country. She said that while there were benefits to be derived by the use of LMOs, there had to be balance and protection for the consumerThe Cartagena Protocol also speaks to the need for public participation in the decision making process, but she noted that since it did not clearly articulate the elements of that participation, the law would have to address this point. The Protocol does not apply to pharmaceuticals as these are addressed by other international agreements.
Administratively, the issue of biosafety transcends several regulatory agencies and some non -regulatory policies. Existing laws include, the Plant Quarantine Act, the Food and Drugs Act, the Pharmacy Act, the Standards Act, the Public Health Act, the Animals Disease and Importation Act, the Natural Resources and Conservation Act; and the Pesticides Act among others.
The administrative framework to address the legislation includes a competent authority as set out in the Protocol, and the NRCA has been proposed as that competent authority.
In addition, Mrs. Davis-Mattis informed, the proposed national focal point was the National Council on Science and Technology while the National Biosafety Committee would be the advisory body to the competent authority. The Protocol also speaks to the establishment of a clearing house, where any information on the protocol could be accessed. The Institute of Jamaica, which is also the clearing house for the biodiversity convention, will retain this portfolio.
“A lot of the research is being done on genetically modified crops, therefore the Minister of Agriculture under the proposed legislation will address the policy issues and where the subject matter addresses another minister’s portfolio, then it could not be done unless you consult with that particular ministry,” Mrs. Davis-Mattis said.
She emphasized that this type of legislation would be difficult to enforce and that the process would require having a “new breed of consumers and enforcement officers. You are talking about ensuring that customs officers are so trained and so familiar with the legislation that they will know that when something comes in, they must check for the labels.it speaks to beefing up enforcement staff, building capacity so that people understand the issues. What we need to do is to work together to ensure that the relevant legislation is in place to address our environment and our public health issues,” she declared.
Jamaica’s biosafety framework includes a National Policy on Biosafety; draft elements for a regulatory regime for biosafety, risk assessment and risk management procedures; and mechanisms for public information and participation.
The project, which began in November 2002, is divided into three phases with phase one consisting of information gathering, surveys, compilation of inventories and database development. Phase two involves consultation, training and analysis; identification of and consultation with stakeholders; training; and drafting of a national biosafety policy and the framework elements. Meanwhile, the third phase involves drafting the framework, laws, administrative systems, risks procedures and systems for public participation.

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