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NAIROBI, Kenya, January 15, 2002 (ENS) - Developing countries will be better able to assess the potential risks and rewards from genetically engineered crops due to a new multi-million dollar capacity building project.

The project, financed by the Global Environment Facility, is at the center of an African Regional Workshop on biosafety that opens today in Nairobi. Representatives from 46 countries are attending the three day workshop.

The three year, $38.4 million capacity building project is seen as a key initiative to help as many as 100 developing countries prepare for the entry into force of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Named after the city in Colombia where it was negotiated, the protocol was adopted in January 2000 as an addition to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which is hosting this week's biosafety workshop, will carry out the capacity building project. It will help developing countries acquire the scientific and legal skills for evaluating the health and environmental issues surrounding imports of so-called Living Modified Organisms (LMOs).


Half the soybeans planted in the U.S. in 2000 came from genetically modified seeds (Photos courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service)
UNEP executive director Klaus Toepfer said, "Industry is convinced that genetically engineered crops are the key to boosting yields in a more environmentally friendly way. But others are concerned that the new technology may actually pose environmental as well as health risks."

"The Cartagena Protocol is an attempt to reconcile these trade and environmental protection issues," said Toepfer.

It is the first legal, environmental treaty, to institutionalize the precautionary approach to LMOs, and establishes the advanced informed agreement proceedure.

This requires those nations exporting LMOs to inform countries who import them so that the receiving country can decide whether or not to accept the shipment," Toepfer explained.

Christopher Briggs, who will manage the biosafty project, said, "It is a direct response to the need for building capacity for assessing and managing risks, establishing adequate information systems, and developing expert human resources in the field of biosafety."

"The key to achieving this goal is pooling together the scarce institutional, financial, technical, and human resources within the region and sharing ideas and information amongst local and international experts, Briggs said.

To this end, UNEP will convene more than 20 regional and sub-regional workshops in the near future. Participants will cover implementation of the new project through National Biosafety Frameworks, and work out ways to promote collaboration regionally, sub-regionally and between regions.

Charles Gbedemah from Ghana, who is the project's task manager for the Africa region, said, "It is no coincidence that the first activity under this major biosafety, capacity building, initiative is taking place in Nairobi for the benefit of the African continent.

"Africa has played a leadership role during the negotiation of the Cartagena Protocol, and we hope that the implementation of this project will assist the African countries in playing a similar role throughout the implementation phase of the protocol, said Gbedemah.


Corn engineered to produce the Bt toxin reduces the impact of European corn borers.
The GEF was established in 1991 as a partnership between UNEP, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank Group. UNEP is working in more than 144 countries to carry out its GEF activities.

The new capacity building project will build on the experience gained from the implementation of a smaller pilot biosafety capacity building project of $2.5 million, involving 18 countries, also financed by the GEF and implemented by UNEP.

Ahmed Djoghlaf, chief of the GEF Coordination Division in UNEP said, "It will also build synergy with the implementation of eight on-going national biosafety demonstration projects, worth $4.5 million, aimed at implementing already existing National Biosafety Frameworks."

The Biosafety Protocol seeks to ensure the safe transfer, handling and use of Living Modified Organisms that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

The United Nations Environment Programme is providing the secretariat of the Protocol as well as the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity located in Montreal, Canada.

To date, 107 governments have signed the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol, and 10 countries have ratified it. Fifty ratifications are required for its entry into force.