The Ministry of Forestry, Fisheries and Sustainable Development is the National Focal Point to the Convention of Biological Diversity. The Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) is the focal point of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Dr. Natalie Gibson, Deputy Director of Food Safety, BAHA is the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety National focal point and Mr. Francisco Gutierrez, Director of Plant Health, is focal point for Biosafety Clearing House.
The Belize Agricultural Health Authority(BAHA) has been designated the competent authority for biosafety in Belize. To determine the status of biosafety in Belize the authority has developed capacity to screen soy bean and corn for seven different events including herbicide tolerance and Bt events. Confirmatory tests are conducted on behalf of BAHA by recognized reference laboratories in the United States. Efforts are being made to enact draft regulations to enable Belize to have a framework under which biosafety will be implemented.
The national biosafety committee has now been officially replaced by the national biosafety council. Its membership consists of representation from:
- The Belize Agricultural Health Authority
- The Ministry of Natural Resources and Agriculture
- The University of Belize
- Department of Environment
- Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute
- Ministry of Health
- Belize Bureau of Standards
- The Belize Agro-Productive Sector
- Attorney General Ministry
- Non Government Organization
Biosafety in Belize – National Biosafety Focal Point Perspective
The Country of Belize is bounded in the north of Mexico (Quintana Roo, in the extreme north-west, Campeche provinces) and elsewhere by Guatemala (Peten and, in the extreme south, Izabal provinces) and to the East by the Caribbean Sea. The Country is roughly rectangular, measuring 280 km at the coastline from north to south and 109 km from east to west, extending to 180 km through inclusion of territorial sea. Total Land Area, including the cayes, is 8,860 mi2 (22, 960 km2) in the total national territory including terrestrial sea of c. 18,000 mi (46,620 km2). The country is divided into six districts, 9 municipalities and over 240 villages.
Belize signed to the Convention on Biological Diversity on June 13th 1992 and ratified it on December 30th 1993. The Ministry of Natural Resources is the National Focal Point to the Convention of Biological Diversity. Belize ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on February 12th 2004 and became a party by accession on May 12th 2004. The Focal Point of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is under the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA), the competent authority in Belize for Agricultural Health and Food Safety. BAHA also host the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH) Focal Point for Belize.
The first National Biosafety Committee (NBC) was formed in November 2002 under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture. The Minister of Agriculture took the lead in appointing members to this committee with the objective to review the use of GMOs (LMOs) and to draft appropriate policy and legislation for Biosafety and GMO use and make recommendations for addressing present and future Biosafety issues in Belize. The NBC became a more formal entity when Belize became recipient of the UNEP/GEF project entitled “Development of National Biosafety Framework” which is aimed at assisting countries to develop national biosafety regulatory and administrative regimes, decision-making systems including risk assessment, and mechanisms for public participation. The Government of Belize, through the Ministry of National Development act as the National Executing Agency (NEA) in providing administrative support to the project and the Belize Agricultural Health Authority (BAHA) has been appointed as the Implementing Agency to provide technical and scientific assistance to the work of the National Biosafety Committee/ National Coordinating Committee. These entities work in close collaboration with relevant government departments, international agencies, private sector participants and non governmental organizations many of which have representation on the NBC and on the BAHA Board of Directors.
History of Biosafety in Belize
The UNEP/GEF Biosafety project with an initial 18 Month life span suffered a number of set backs in Belize that stalled its completion which was initially set for July of 2005. The two National Project Coordinators employed to manage the project resigned -the first in October 2004, and the second, hired in January 2005 to replace the first NPC, resigned at the end of January 2006. In addition, the consultancy on the “Assessment of the National Capacity on Biosafety in Belize” met with a number of administrative difficulties with the final report of the consultants not being submitted until November of 2005. The recommendations of this comprehensive report form the basis for the development of the NBF.
Following the resignation of the NPC in January of 2006, the NBC was fairly dormant until its revival following Belize’s attendance at COP MOP3 in Brazil in March of 2006 and the reorganization of the NBC into sub committees with the mandate to complete or address the outstanding issues and tasks required for the completion of Belize NBF.
Presently, Belize, through the NBC, is at the stage of organizing the specific data and recommendations emanating from the capacity assessment and NBC consultations by developing a specific policy on Biosafety in Belize, and reviewing the administrative and regulatory data to be placed in the NBF. Belize is also preparing for a nation- wide public consultation on Biosafety (presentations on elements of the NBF) which is being organized by the NBC on October 13th-25th 2006. A number of radio and television interviews, press releases and Biosafety promotional materials are being designed for general distribution to the public. It is expected that comments and contributions coming out of the nationwide consultation will be reviewed and used by the NBC to enhance the final NBF document. It is worthwhile to note that the first public forum on GMOs and related Biosafety issues was held in Belize on February 29th 2000. At that forum it was decided that Belize would place a moratorium on the importation and use of GMOs until Belize has established its National Biosafety Committee which would be charged with developing and implementing the relevant protocols and mechanisms for managing the use of GMOs. The committee has endorsed and extended the decision not to consider any importation of LMOs until the NBF is fully operational. It is expected that the NBF will be completed by December 2006.
Biosafety Issues for Belize:
With the quick pace of scientific and technological change in biotechnology over the last two decades, and the many applications in the pharmaceutical and agro-food industries, there is an urgent need in Belize as a Bio-diverse country to develop a national policy with respect to the use and trade of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) for her own security and as part of Belize’s obligations under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. The lack of a national policy to address the use of GMO material in Belize will cause demands for the use of such material and possibly the smuggling of such material over Belize’s largely unmanned extensive borders.
There is presently no designated agency that has developed testing capabilities and a programme for monitoring or policing the use or controlling the production of restricted material. It is imperative that the agency designated to develop this capability be given the necessary capacity to perform the regulatory functions for testing and procedures for monitoring for the presence of GMOs.
Biosafety in response to potential threats associated with biotechnology is driven by common concerns in the Caribbean sub-region. There are concerns about potential threats to small, fragile ecosystems represented by the small island developing states, which account for 12 of the 15 sub-region countries. For Belize the concern is mainly to possible threats to a relatively large area of rich biodiversity to which the country is bound to preserve and the concern about indigenous human settlements that are set in an environment sustained by this rich biodiversity.
Belize has a viable market for its organic products. For example, Cacao, produced largely by Maya farmers in the south was one of the first products to be marketed international under the organic and “Fair Trade” label. The Government of Belize is exploring the expansion of such niche markets to other commodities such as honey, papaya and citrus. How Belize maintain and promote these markets in the face of request for importation of LMOs which is usually linked to some major investment package or Trade Agreement with an LMO producing country will be a major challenge for the country. In addition, Belize as members of Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and with the implementation of the Caribbean Single Market and Economy (CSME) and the obligation to allow free trade of goods and services and the promotion of harmonized legislation may spill over to trade in products derived from modern biotechnology as CARICOM Ministers have already identified the promotion of Biotechnology as a means for economic advancement for the region. The promotion of biotechnology without a concomitant promotion and strong support for Biosafety is a risk that Belize is not prepared to allow.
The results of the National Capacity Assessment conducted in Belize indicated that there is no expressed interest, nor the need, nor the expertise within Belize to conduct research work on genetic engineering at this time or in the near future. The most probable scenario will be that certain sectors in the country will be end users of genetically engineered products produced elsewhere. Consequently, the greatest need will be for Belize to educate its consumers on the risk and benefit of such products and the need to develop the capabilities for detecting GMO material in products for consumption and products for planting. This need will require capacity building through training of technical personnel, the acquisition of appropriate testing equipment and the relevant reagents. In addition, Belize with its rich ecosystems and biodiversity may very well be the source of genetic material that forms the basis of further development by research companies through Modern Biotechnology. The legislative framework then, must be one that is holistic, broad enough to ensure that GMOs and GMO-derived products that are grown, marketed and imported, meet the highest standards of safety for the environment, as well as for human and animal health and one that ensures equitability, respect for indigenous knowledge, provision for liability and redress, and promote direct benefit to farmers and consumers.