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3-Gentech §§: Jamaica dicusses about legal frameworks for genetic engineering



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TITLE:  Scientists assess impacts of bio-engineering
SOURCE: Inter Press Service, Jamaica
DATE:   April 13, 1999

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Scientists assess impacts of genetic engineering

KINGSTON, (Apr. 13) IPS - With heightened international interest in the labelling of genetically modified food products, local scientists here are beginning to take a much closer look at the issue of bio-engineering. Many of them admit that the country is far from ready in terms of legislation, public education or ability to control the entry and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but they say that it is too important a technological development to overlook. Biotechnology has tremendous possibility in health, in the treatment of for example, hypertension, diabetes and other chronic diseases which are increasing here," said Dr. Andre Gordon, chief executive officer of Technological Solutions Limited and a member of the National Commission on Science and Technology (NCST). "We also have to begin to look at the other implications...much of the businesses and so on could be wiped out. For example...we can't compete with (a genetically engineered) pig with lower body fat!
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," he said.

Gordon said that it is time for the country to begin documenting and protecting its gene pool so that it can benefit from whatever developments might accrue from the use of its biological diversity by foreign scientists. Genetic engineering involves the transfer of DNA between organisms. The new organism, sometimes referred to as transgenic or genetically modified, might be of superior quality -- like a tomato that takes longer to spoil or a potato that produces 20 percent more starch. It also has applications in other areas such as medicine and environmental science. Although their resources are relatively limited, Jamaican scientists have done work in the field of biotechnology. There is the continuing effort, for example, of biotechnician Dr. Paula Tennant to save the local papaya industry from the ring spot virus by trying to produce a virus-resistant fruit. Papaya production has declined from 607 hectares to 202 hectares over the last few years as a result of the virus in!
!
festation.

But while all these benefits of genetic modification are known, Dr. Elaine Fisher, a vice president of the Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, said that there are concerns which the country should become aware of. "The long-term effects of bio-engineering are still not known...When introducing elements into the food chain it is important that we be careful. We do not have control in this area. Though biotechnology has a largely favorable record, (scientific) trial from small field studies are different from widespread ones," she said. Labelling to indicate that a food contains genetically- modified elements, said Dr. Fisher, is still not mandatory in many countries -- including Jamaica -- but it is necessary, especially to warn people who have allergies. She added that some people have dietary restrictions, for example from pig and pig products, and should be warned if these animal genes are included in food.

Developing the legal framework to accommodate the rapid expansion of knowledge and use of GMOs is another area of major concern among the scientists. Carol Stephens, a legal officer with a keen interest in protecting the biodiversity of this developing nation, said that "it is a new area, a growth area, that the country needs to look at in detail." She said Jamaica is now a party to the Biological Diversity Convention that recognizes the rights of countries over their genetic material, and so these issues will have to be given some serious attention. "We haven't yet put in any (legal) framework...protocol is important because once you release material into the environment you cannot call them back, for example, the transgenic papaya which we are working on. So there are some issues that we need to consider carefully," Stephens said. Some work is being done now to establish a Biological Diversity Action Plan, but she said there is still no policy that speaks to biotechnology or!
!
 bio-safety or the potential benefits that Jamaica could derive from, for example, its agricultural applications. The country, Stephens said, must also address the issue of the protection of its intellectual property rights. 



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