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Improving biosafety regulations for poor farmers

This policy brief, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), makes seven recommendations for improving biosafety regulations in developing countries.

Developing country farmers increasingly face droughts and poor soils induced by climate change, and could benefit from genetic engineering — for example drought-resistant staple crops such as cassava, sorghum and millet.

But developers often encounter problems in demonstrating the safety of such crops to regulatory authorities.

Research has shown that 100 developing countries lack the "technical and management capacity" needed to monitor compliance with biosafety regulations. And the costs associated with enforcing compliance are often prohibitively high — from tens of thousands to millions of dollars.

The authors suggest seven options to ensure more efficient and sensible biosafety regulations that can improve poor farmers' access to genetic modification technology.

First, regulators should assess risk realistically and match the level of regulation accordingly. For example, 'fast-tracking' crops with traits that have been approved elsewhere.

Second, regulatory frameworks should be more flexible. Examining similar crops in similar environments or using environmental modelling tools could make the system more efficient.

Third, performance-based regulations should be favoured over prescribed processes. The latter are inflexible and adapt less well to new knowledge and experience.

Fourth, innovative risk-assessment methods should be used. For example, 'tiered approaches' that compare the risks associated with any single GM crop across similar agroecological areas.

Fifth, the application process must be rationalised. By removing questions unnecessary or irrelevant to decision making, the time and money spent complying with biosafety regulations would reduce without sacrificing safety.

Sixth, regulators must appreciate the costs, benefits and safety considerations associated with both approval and non-approval of GM technologies.

And lastly, data sharing and knowledge exchange should be pursued both globally and regionally.