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The German government is planning to approve a €2 million grant to help African nations develop regulations requiring genetically modified (GM) crops to be shown to be safe for human health and the environment before allowing them on the market.

The move potentially conflicts with a parallel Africa biosafety plan funded by the United States and led by members of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) which takes a more conventional approach to assessing the potential dangers of GM crops (see US boosts biosafety in developing countries).

The five-year US project was announced in May by the US Agency for International Development. It will invest nearly US$15 million in biosafety capacity-building activities in developing countries, including East and West Africa. Ministries and non-governmental groups are also expected to participate.

Tewolde Egziabher, general manager of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority and architect of the German/Africa proposal, says he recognises that Africa's governments will come under pressure to implement two biosafety projects based on conflicting philosophies. But he claims that the German-funded project is the only one to have the endorsement of member states of the African Union.

The three-year German-funded project is intended to help countries in Africa develop laws and regulatory structures to ensure GM organisms do not pose a threat to humans or the environment. It will also train scientists, customs officials, police and judges to meet their countries' obligations under the Cartagena protocol.

The project is a partnership between Germany and the African Union (AU), and will be run by a body known as the African Regional Biosafety Coordinating Office, based in the AU's secretariat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The office will be staffed with lawyers, scientists, and technical experts – mostly from countries in Africa.

Egziabher says project staff will try to convince national governments to pass biosafety laws based on a model law developed in 1999 and endorsed at the last meeting of AU heads of state in Maputo, Mozambique in August. South Africa and Zimbabwe are the only two African countries to have functioning biosafety legislation, though many more are planning to pass laws.

The requirements of the model law are similar to those in the Cartagena protocol, but more comprehensive in scope. Under the Cartagena protocol, for example, an exporting country needs permission from an importing country to send GM organisms that are intended for release into the environment — such as plants or fish.

The African model law, in comparison, recommends that permission be required to export all GM products, including processed food, animal feed and medicines. It also contains guidelines on liability and compensation in the event of transport and handling accidents.

Egziabher says the African Union has also asked the German government to fund a comprehensive biosafety testing laboratory in Addis Ababa, as well as four regional laboratories in different capitals.