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Kazakhstan’s biosafety issues

Many countries around the world, including those in Central Asia, face major challenges related to genetically modified objects.

Issues related to utilization and control over genetically modified objects (GMO) directly impact civil rights related to favorable environment, access to timely, complete and accurate information on food products quality, health risks and threats.

In Kazakhstan biosafety issues have yet to be reviewed as a separate stand alone set of problems. Currently various agencies address these challenges. For example, Ministry of Agriculture operates Plants Quarantine and Protection Department responsible for issuing permissions to ship genetically modified organisms into the country.

In addition, Environmental Protection Ministry, Ministry of science and education and the country’s customs committee cover issues related to genetically modified organisms.

The country conducts biotechnology research and operates its National Biotechnology Center, responsible for genetic and cell engineering research to create and use living modified organisms in closed systems. Moreover, several scientific research facilities implement grant-funded research projects in cooperation with foreign partners.

Government of Kazakhstan adopted a targeted 2001-2005 Program entitled “Scientific and technical support and production of biotechnological products in Kazakhstan” (funded from the national budget).

Available data indicates that within last several years no permissions were granted to import plants containing genetically modified organisms into the Republic of Kazakhstan. There is no specific data dealing with shipments and application of genetically modified organisms in Kazakhstan since there are no clear procedures regulating cross-border flows of genetically modified organisms. The only known fact is related to an incident which took place in 1997 when the Government of Kazakhstan banned an attempted shipment of transgene agricultural products. Nevertheless, issues related to transgene agricultural produce (soy beans, tomatoes, corn etc.) shipments into the country are still highly relevant.

Experts believe that Kazakhstan needs a comprehensive approach to biosafety issues. It is important to address legal issues first. Currently Kazakhstan operates a bare-bone legal framework providing no comprehensive solutions for safe shipments and use of living modified organisms.

Among legislative acts in one way or another dealing with living modified organisms we have to highlight the Law “On food products quality and security”, signed by Nursultan Nazarbaev, the President of Kazakhstan, on 8 April 2004. The Law defines “genetically modified sources” – raw materials and products of plant and (or) animal nature obtained using genetic engineering methodologies.

Specifically, the law mandates state registration of all genetically modified sources shipped to the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Products containing genetically modified sources and designed for public consumption have to meet requirements set forth by the designated authorities responsible for public sanitary and epidemiological well-being.

Product labels and other visible attributes should, among others, provide information about product contents, including applied genetically modified sources and biologically active additives.

The draft Law “On state regulation of genetic engineering activities” is in the works as well as a document regulating state registration of genetically engineered and modified organisms.

Kazakhstan is developing a framework biosafety document as a part of the national project implemented by the UN Ecological Program – Global Ecological Foundation. Kazakhstan’s Environmental Protection Ministry, Ministry of the Economy and UNEP/GEF have approved the project.

"An unsatisfactory situation related to regulation and control over shipment and use of genetically modified organisms in the Republic of Kazakhstan dictates the urgency of our project. In Kazakhstan lack of control over application inevitably leads to unrecoverable losses of biological diversity", - believes Erlan Jumabaev, Kazakhstan Biosafety Project Coordinator.

Biosafety represents an internationally accepted term covering issues related to application of modern biotechnology advances, primarily, genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms. “Kartahena Biodiversity Protocol of the Biodiversity Convention (signed in 2000 in Nairobi, Kenya) represents a fundamental document designed for application throughout the world.

Kartahena Protocol is the only internationally adopted document developed solely to address issues related to control over genetically modified organisms. Kartahena is a town in Columbia where parties expected to agree upon and adopt the Protocol in February 1999. However, it was revised and finally adopted only a year later, on 29 January 2000 in Montreal, Canada. In 2000 68 out of 103 signatories to the Protocol ratified the document.

Kartahena Protocol clearly stipulates the precaution principle: a country has the right to refrain from importing genetically modified organisms considering potential adverse impacts on the environment and public health. By its status the Protocol is by no means lower than other international agreements, particularly, WTO (World Trade Organization) agreements.

Parties of the Protocol should guarantee that access to any living modified organisms (genetically modified organisms capable of reproduction), processing, shipments, use, transfer and release should take place in a way excluding or limiting risks to biological diversity, considering public health risks.

In spring of 2003 Kazakhstan established National Biosafety Coordination Committee to spearhead targeted work aimed at developing a framework biosafety document.

Biosafety Coordination Committee consists of the Parliament’s Majilis Ecology and Nature Use Committee members, representatives of the Ministries of foreign affairs, environmental protection, health care, education and science, Ministry of Agriculture plants protection and quarantine department, Kazakhstan’s Customs Agency, Aithozhin molecular biology and biological chemistry institute, Plants physiology, genetics and bioengineering institute, Ministry of education and science food institute, as well as non-governmental organizations such as “Greenwomen” ecological news agency.

National Biosafety Committee is housed under Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Agriculture Forestry and Hunting Committee. Mr. Igor Koval, First deputy head of Forestry and Hunting Committee serves as the Project’s National Coordinator. Mr. Erlan Jumabaev works as Project Coordinator. Biosafety Committee aims to develop a framework biosafety document for the Republic of Kazakhstan. Mr. Jumabaev believes that the framework document will include legal system developments, an administrative framework, a decision-making system on matters related to genetically modified organisms as well as public participation mechanisms.

The total framework document development project cost is 247.7 thousand USD, of which UNEP-GEF contribute 162.7 thousand USD (monetary contribution), while Government of Kazakhstan provides the remaining amount as its in-kind contribution.

National Coordination Committee develops an inventory of biosafety information available in Kazakhstan and collects comprehensive information on various biosafety aspects, including an international legal review on issues related to genetically modified objects and biosafety, solutions and action plans etc. Based on the information analysis the Committee plans to present its recommendations to the Government of Kazakhstan chartering the course for Kartahena Protocol ratification by the Republic of Kazakhstan.

Erlan Jumabaev believes that if Kazakhstan joins Kartahena Protocol it will allow to hold countries accountable for conducting activities related to cross-border shipments of genetically modified organisms and take adequate measures preventing shipments of genetically modified organisms across the border of Kazakhstan.

Achievement of the Protocol’s goals provides for active international cooperation including mutual research and development support as well as information and technologies exchanges in the sphere of genetically modified organisms. The framework of the Protocol envisions funding mechanisms development and financial support for transition economies to be provided by developed countries.

By becoming a party to the Kartahena Protocol, Kazakhstan will assume a number of responsibilities, for example, to take measures ensuring that genetically modified organisms subject to cross-border shipments are processed, packaged and shipped in accordance with appropriate safety conditions; to distribute information and promote public awareness, etc.

Several seminars for specialists working in the spheres related to genetically modified organisms and genetically modified objects have been organized in the framework of the biosafety document development. One of the seminars organized in Lithuania in May 2003 was devoted to UNEP-GEF biosafety projects in Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia focusing on public participation in addressing issues related to genetically modified objects. A seminar covering Kazakhstan’s responsibilities related to Kartahena Biosafety Protocol implementation took place in Almaty in August 2003.

In spring 2003 for the first time Kazakhstan’s non-governmental organizations conducted an information campaign covering issues associated with genetically modified objects. The campaign took place in the framework of International Anti-GMO Days that have been organized by the international community for the last eight years (on April 1-15).

In her speech before the Parliament of Kazakhstan, Ms. T. Kvyatkovskaya, the parliamentary deputy, reported that every year in Kazakhstan sanitary and epidemiological stations confiscated more than 800 thousand kilograms of substandard and dangerous food products. “Nobody knows how much of the same substandard produce remains on the store shelves and ends up on our tables. No other CIS country lives in such dire circumstances”, warns Deputy Kvyatkovskaya.

As we have mentioned, in addition to substandard food products shipments, currently Kazakhstan faces the challenge of dealing with mutated products, in other words, products based on genetically modified organisms (GMO). Currently nobody can give a precise answer if genetically modified objects are sold in Kazakhstan because imported products lack proper marking and GMO tests are not conducted since the country does not have a properly equipped laboratory for these purposes.

Kazakhstan joined Orhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making processes and access to justice in matters related to the environment. Consequently, public organizations believe that people must and have the right to know what kinds of products they consume.

"By the way, in Almaty more than 100 thousand children are prone to various allergies. We can not rule out the possibility that a number of those cases resulted from low quality food consumption. That is why the right to know, the right to have access to information is a fundamental right", stresses Ms. Kvyatkovskaya.

The Deputy believes that it is important to raise public awareness.

"We should never forget about tomorrow. At some point Kazakhstan will join WTO (World Trade Organizations). WTO member states face the challenge of dealing with increasingly free cross-border shipments. WTO promotes certain standards postulating that every five years a country has to lower its customs duties by 5%. Currently Kazakhstan has to consider applying prohibitive or limiting measures to goods and products that might have adverse public health impacts.

Sooner or later these products will reach our market. While we are still not a part of WTO we can protect ourselves from these goods or at least introduce additional security levels by levying high customs duties, thus limiting shipments of, for example, genetically modified objects.

As soon as the country joins WTO, it will be important to define the level of duties for genetically modified products to protect still fairly weak national producers. We have to act now.

Many experts believe that we shall hurt our consumers by limiting shipments of imported goods and services. Some people feel that this will cause prices of domestically produced goods to increase, while their quality will become significantly lower.

This is a flawed logical path. We have to take measures to protect our internal market and domestic producers of goods and services, create appropriate conditions and competitive environment for local producers. When we consider a large country such as Kazakhstan, developing greater competitiveness for local producers may prove to be beneficial. Competitors attempt to lower prices and improve quality to attract new customers.

Even if local goods for a while will be somewhat more expensive and their quality will be somewhat lower, still limiting imports will allow to support local producers. Soon these local producers will be able to create new jobs. Foreign producers create jobs in their countries and protect only their own interests", emphasizes Ms. Kvyatkovskaya.

Participants of the seminar on access to genetic resources organized in Almaty in July 2004 believe that one has to pay for genetic information.

Organized by the UN University Advanced Research Institute and International Environmental Protection Union Ecological Law Center the seminar attempted to review issues related to application of Biodiversity Convention principles to national legislation.

“The Convention promotes an important principle: if someone uses genetic resources to generate profit he has to provide appropriate compensation to regions where such resources were obtained.”, explains Mr. Vitalii Gromov, Regional Coordinator for the International Environmental Protection Union, “For example, if a pharmaceutical firm develops medicines using saigak horns the firm has to allocate funds to protect and study these animals. Or, if a foreign company develops new types of wheat using samples produced in Kazakhstan, then our country has to receive appropriate compensation of its expenses related to development of the samples”.

However, Mr. Gromov states that so far even in the international law there have been no precedents of successful application of this principle articulated in the Biodiversity Convention.

To help Central Asian countries effectively use their unique biological resources the UN University Advanced Research Institute started to implement a program aimed at promoting access to genetic resources.

In the words of Mr. Brendon Tobin, a researcher with the UN University Advanced research Institute: “We are very much interested in working in this region since up until lately it has been suffering from the lack of attention on the part of international organizations. Currently you face the same challenge as many other countries where we have had a chance to work. At our meetings before the seminar we’ve already made decisions aimed at establishing a regional biodiversity network. It should help legal experts from across the region in their work on these issues”

At the seminar “Promoting public awareness of the national framework document (UNEP-GEF Project “National biodiversity framework document development for the Republic of Kazakhstan”) organized in June 2003, “Greenwomen” Ecological News Agency presented its analysis of biosafety and public participation issues.

Despite the fact that genetically modified plants have officially or unofficially “come” to the vast majority of countries throughout the world, the rules of working with these plants in natural environments and on the market are still being developed. Each country has its own distinct approach to genetically modified objects: from complete acceptance (provided that “bad” genetically modified objects are scientifically prohibited from entering the market) to extreme cautiousness – a moratorium on almost all types of activities involving genetically modified objects.

NGO position worldwide with respect to GMO is uniform and distinct: a moratorium on GMO. The vast majority of NGOs adopted the same position at the V ministerial meeting “Environment for Europe” organized in Kiev on 18-25 May 2003.

In summer of 2001 UNEP-GEF launched a project aimed at developing National Biosafety Frameworks in more than 100 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the region encompassing Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia. UNEP idea is to make sure that in every country the biosafety framework is marked by a characteristic that distinguishes it from “non-bio” safety systems – public participation mechanisms even at the level of strategic decisions related to transgenes.

Kartahena Protocol does not only stress participation as such, it also defines the need for increased public awareness and education thus giving people knowledge and information needed to participate actively in establishing biosafety services and taking part in the decision-making process on certain aspects of the problem.

What is participation? Participation means «separation of interests and decision-making» defining how and to what extent people may exchange opinions, participate in decision-making on biosafety issues and support policy development in the sphere of safe GMO use. Considering that participation depends on how the country and society function, it may have different forms depending on the cultural and political situation in the society or country.

Why is participation important? The goal of participation is to establish partnership. Participation facilitates:

  • Involvement of all interested parties across all sectors in the decision-making process;
  • Bridging opinion gaps between various community groups with respect to safe use of living modified organisms;
  • Establishment of a process including all interested parties in a way allowing to share common positions and goals;
  • Improvement of decision-making processes based on scientifically proven information and consensus;
  • Promotion of transparency and accountability;
  • Procedural equality and equal results for all parties.

4 foundations of public participation

Participation mechanisms – effective public participation requires application of certain mechanisms providing general public with opportunities to express its opinions and support the decision-making process. Public participation mechanisms employed in developing national biosafety frameworks and decision-making processes should be based on available means by which the general public participates in decision-making in other spheres. These mechanisms should fit the country’s cultural, social and political situation. Selection of participation mechanisms also depends on Kartahena Protocol requirements.

Capacity building – all participants should have the necessary skills and instruments allowing them to participate in addressing biosafety challenges. Capacity building to ensure effective public communication is also important for politicians and other decision-makers.

Access to information – effective participation depends on whether all interested parties have access to adequate information allowing to make decisions based on verified and timely information and to support country-level monitoring of living modified organisms.

Transparency and reporting play an important role in building trust to make sure that the general public understands effectiveness of its participation and that the decision-making process meets Kartahena Protocol requirements.

Key objectives related to public participation in biosafety issues regulation

Advanced science – experience indicates that citizens are capable of discussing scientific issues using common vocabulary and concepts. However, scientific information is often presented in a difficult unfriendly format designed for specialists. Facilitation of public participation implies searching for ways to provide access to scientific data which can be beneficial for common people.

Difference of opinions – the controversial nature of biosafety issues and ethical considerations related to living genetically modified organisms result in a situation when open expression of various opinions and assessments helps to develop a more complete and diverse understanding of public interests and attitudes toward the issues allowing politicians to foresee future courses of action.

Commercial secrets – considering the amount of investments needed to create living genetically modified organisms, biotechnology research companies believe that they should safeguard large volumes of information presented to regulators. On the other hand, secrecy in matters associated with risk assessments and safety testing may lead to suspicion and lack of trust toward the regulating system.

International trade laws – WTO responsibilities limit biosafety regulation system development and implementation to issues associated with scientific and technical assessments and biodiverity impacts evaluation. However, practical experience indicates that living modified organisms inevitably raise social, economic, ethical and moral issues. Processes failing to meet public expectations with respect to broader and better defined regulation approaches lack legitimacy.

The proposed public participation action plan format aimed at addressing GMO issues may include:

  • Stages and expected outcomes (for example, stage 1 – data collection, stage 2 – consultations and analysis; stage 3 – national biosafety frameworks development;
  • Actions;
  • Success indicators;
  • Risks and constraints;
  • Resources;
  • Separation of roles and responsibilities, etc.

Some specific examples of public participation addressing GMO-related issues in Kazakhstan.

On 1-15 April 2003 “Greenwomen” Ecological News Agency in cooperation with Ecological Culture Integration Foundation organized a GMO information campaign. This was the first campaign of its kind in Kazakhstan.
We believed that mass media served as key conduits of information available to the general public. Consequently, our first objective was to provide journalists with detailed information about GMO, their potential adverse impacts, current GMO-related situation in Kazakhstan, what is currently being done and what could have been done to address GMO-related issues. Genetically modified objects proved to be an interesting topic and almost all media outlets (newspapers, information agencies and television channels) provided some coverage. In the framework of the campaign we organized a press-conference and distributed press-releases and related materials. Our organization mailed out up-to-date information via its distribution list and posted information on its web site (in other words we attempted to employ all means available to provide information to the general public). At the same time we must admit that there can be additional opportunities. For example, special actions can be organized at grocery stores with NGO representatives providing information about genetically modified products. A similar action entitled “What do you know about GMO?” has been organized in 2002 in Moscow, Russia and other Russian cities in the framework of International Anti-GMO Days (organized on 1-15 of April) by an NGO called Social-Ecological Union. We can also organize public surveys, develop brochures and other publications which can be distributed using various means (for example, mass delivery into mailboxes). In other words, a variety of means to distribute information to a broad audience, including special information campaigns aimed at convincing customers to purchase local ecologically clean produce etc.

To inform the general public we develop a special information campaign plan, including targeted development and distribution of information on various aspects of the issue. Free access to information on the issue serves as an important factor in campaign implementation.

Public participation in legislative efforts. An example of a successful initiative: Kazakhstan’s non-governmental ecological organizations addressed deputies of the Parliament’s Majilis working on the bill “On food products quality and safety” and on the bill ‘On consumers’ rights protection”. The address specifically referred to GMO-related issues and called upon members of the Parliament to devote proper attention to these issues. Public participation in legislative efforts may include roundtable discussions, public debates etc.

Public awareness. A “Greenwomen” correspondent interviewed Ms. tatyana Kvyatkovskaya, Parliament’s Majilis Deputy (the interview is published on “Greenwomen” web site and in “TERRA Zher Ana” magazine). It is important to make sure that officials share their opinions since this will lead people to trust information and see that authorities are interested in addressing the issues. In their turn, it is important for journalists to receive information from officials to share it with readers and viewers. Promotion of public awareness includes close cooperation with the media (information campaigns). This may include development of special TV and radio programs about genetically modified objects, informational publications (brochures, bulletins, flyers etc.), documentaries, commercials (PSAs).

Public education may include various seminars for NGO representatives as well as for other target audiences (customs, retail sales force, entrepreneurs etc.); special classes at high schools and universities addressing the issue etc.

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