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  • What does a new bill on genetic protection mean for Jamaica?

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It is unlikely that the new bill on genetic resources will have the expressed impact without a fundamental change in current views and values about how knowledge is acquired and used, says policymaker Arnoldo Ventura.

A bill providing for the protection of Jamaica’s plant genetic resources was passed in the Senate last month (18 January). The bill is related to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources — ‘The Seed Treaty’ — which was adopted by the UN in November 2001 and entered into force in June 2004. Since then, 127 countries plus the European Union have become contracting parties of this treaty.

SPEED READ

  • Jamaica has passed a bill for the protection of plant genetic resources
  • Implementation of the law is beyond the organizational and managerial capacity of the country, says Ventura
  • Economic austerity, global warming, and the yet-to-be-determined decline in species may hamper implementation of the bill

The passing of this bill, called the Protection of Plant Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture Act, by the Jamaican government says much about the country’s willingness to be a responsible global player. The island is similar to other jurisdictions which participate in an assortment of UN fora and thereafter become parties to elaborate ideas and treaties — but without detailed enough analysis of the practicalities necessary to make the best of these aspirations.

The bill is a reasonable objective, and if properly implemented, can make positive contributions to food security and biodiversity protection. Jamaica, because of its long agricultural tradition, has the experience and a smattering of intellectual resources to craft such a bill. However, the same cannot be said of operationalizing it.

Dealing with genetic resources for “uncovered potential value” for food and other agriculture pursuits, requires a new and immediate scientific and technological appreciation, as well as a longer term practical commitment to translation and implementation. Furthermore, conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources starts with a firm knowledge of the genetics of what commercial plants exist and their dynamic relationships with wild species in the environment. Making a list of food crops is therefore just the start of understanding a very active ecological dynamic.

Jamaica has biotechnological competence but this has never been harnessed for the type of detailed and consistent work that is required to catalogue the genetic biodiversity on the island that will allow “precision of genetic profiles and inter-relationships among varieties and species”. Creating regimens, regulations, financial resources, disciplines as well as gaining short-term support and long-term commitment to implementation and learning, have never been priorities. And there is no indication that the situation is about to change.

The catalogue of noble intentions is demanding, and goes way beyond current capability, organisation and management. For example, sharing of benefits must begin with what they are, or could be. Likewise, what are reasonable agricultural practices must be identified not only across borders but also locally.

Identifying ways to “maximize internal intra and inter-species variation to boost benefits”, quoting the bill, will require fundamental genetic experience and patient work. The same holds for broadening “the genetic basis of crops and the expansions of local and locally adapted crops, including varieties and under-utilized species”, as also mentioned in the bill. Additionally, making a comprehensive register of plant genetic resources needs not only taxonomy, but also the ability to identify and preserve resources for reference and replacement when necessary.

These are lofty ambitions which will clearly require the mobilization of the island’s science and technology (S&T) institutions, and indeed new coordinated skills and relationships with expertise abroad. Judging from the political support for S&T in the recent past, there is no indication that these will be assertively pursued. Assistance to pursue some of the objectives now being forwarded was broached long before this bill, but found little or no acceptance or support from responsible parties.

Finally, execution of other lofty expectations such as “cooperation with international organizations to strengthen capabilities, conserve, evaluate, document genetic enhancement and breeding”, as said in the bill, will require the identification of what is available locally and what must be done to the resources to achieve these goals.

As far as I am aware, systematic pursuits of these goals have not yet begun. Although they are to some extent achievable in the Jamaican context they will demand focus, investment and dedication, all of which are presently in short supply.

It is therefore unlikely that a bill such as this will have the expressed impact without a fundament change in current views and values concerning knowledge acquisition and use. Furthermore, the general support for S&T and the innovations they can induce remains only in rhetonic. It is also improbable that Such far-reaching and noble intentions can succeed on their own, without wider infrastructure and enlightened management.

Presently, S&T policies and plans to ensure consolidation and co-operation across the spectrum of necessary activities to make the bill truly operative are in limbo. To be able to detect loss, change or piracy of genetic resources, there will be a need for skilled and experienced individuals, laboratories with sufficient equipment and support, and a widely accepted plan for excellence (scientific, technological, agricultural, political and regulatory).

All this is very challenging at the best times, but even more so in a time of severe economic constraints.
It is relatively easy to draft a bill to satisfy international obligations; it is quite a different matter to make investments to execute it in an atmosphere of economic austerity, global warming and yet-to-be-determined decline in species both on land and in the sea. Furthermore, the inclusions of farmers and agro-industrialists in these efforts have to be made organic and explicit for any hope of success.

Arnoldo Khaleel Ventura has been senior adviser to the Prime Minister of Jamaica on science and technology since 1989. He previously worked as a researcher and professor of virology.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Latin America and Caribbean desk.

 

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