We have been approached by civil society groups in Swaziland to provide comments on the Draft National Policy Document, “Creating an enabling environment for the safe use of biotechnology and its products in Swaziland” and the Biosafety Bill, 2005. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)/World Food Programme (WFP) crop and food supply assessment mission to Swaziland, 20051, the country is gripped by yet another food crisis. They estimate the cereal import requirement for 2005/06 marketing year (March/April) to be 110 600 tonnes, of which 69 700 tonnes are expected to be commercially imported from South Africa, its main trading partner and producer and importer of genetically modified (GM) maize, Soybean and cotton. By March/April 2005, approximately 6 200 tonnes of food aid was on hand and in the pipeline, but a deficit of 34 700 tonnes remains to be provided by additional donor assistance. Swaziland is a net food importing country. Maize is virtually the sole staple for the majority of the population and is the dominant crop grown by the majority of rural households in the communal Swazi Nation Land (SNL), which accounts for about 86% of the land area planted. It is estimated that around 70% of farmers are engaged in subsistence farming. However, for a variety of reasons, domestic production has been steadily declining, and maize imports have been rising rapidly and concomitantly, many households are facing chronic and acute food insecurity. The majority of rural families purchase rather than grow most of the staple food they consume. However, with 66% of the population living on less than US$1 a day, access to food for vulnerable groups is a critical issue, in the context of declining income-earning opportunities and remittances, high levels of unemployment, and the impact of HIV/AIDS on livelihood of households. The milling industry in Swaziland is oligopolistic in nature, and maize meal prices are too high for poor households: the average price paid by consumers is four times the price charge to millers by the National Milling Corporation, a parastatal company that is the sole authorised importer of maize. Against this backdrop, the government has produced the following documents, as its response to genetic engineering and genetically modified food (GMOs):
- Comments On Draft National Policy Document: Creating An Enabling Environment For The Safe Us Of Biotechnology And Its Products In Swaziland (“Draft Policy”); and
- National Biosafety Bill, 2005 (“Biosafety Bill”).
The Biosafety Bill has apparently been drafted by a consultant Lawrence Christy, Attorney (New York), Agricultural, Environmental, Forestry and Fisheries Law, of the FAO. After having analysed both documents, our key findings are as follows:
- The general approach of the Draft Policy is to provide for a supportive and enabling regulatory environment for the introduction of GMOs into Swaziland.
- Core regulatory provisions have been crafted requiring risk assessments, and decision-making based on the precautionary principle but these only apply to domestic commercial sales and plantings of GMOs. However, these provisions are completely undermined by the possibility of exemptions, which will render the entire piece of legislation meaningless.
- The drafter of the Biosafety Bill appears to have taken enormous liberties in the drafting of the Bill. There are numerous serious discrepancies between the Draft Policy and the Biosafety Bill.
- The most damning is the seemingly dishonest and hence unforgivable manner in which the Biosafety Bill utterly ignores the safeguards set out in the Draft Policy with respect to GM food aid. These include requirements that only milled GM food be allowed; that the shipment be accompanied by a written declaration guaranteeing that all events have been approved in the country of origin and have not been contaminated by unapproved events, edible vaccines or any such contaminants.
- Disregarding the Draft Policy, the Biosafety Bill fails to require that bulk shipments of GMOs commercially imported into Swaziland must be assessed for safety, based on the highest standards.
- Provisions regarding the protection of confidential information give the overall impression of draconian style legislation, heavily weighted in favour of secrecy.
- The Biosafety Bill does not establish any mechanisms for public participation in decision-making with respect to applications for authorisations, as envisaged in the Draft Policy.
- The Biosafety Bill does not reflect the provisions of the Draft Policy that requires GM consignments destined for use as feed and food be clearly marked as “contain GM material” and be accompanied by a written declaration guaranteeing that all events have been approved in the country of origin for use as food, feed and further, that they have not been contaminated.
Comments On The Draft National Policy Document: Creating An Enabling Environment For The Safe Us Of Biotechnology And Its Products In Swaziland & National Biosafety Bill, 2005 by Mariam Mayet, Aug 2005.