But the country currently doesn’t have the capacity to identify GMOs

Parliament: With the joint sitting of the National Assembly and the National Council endorsing the Bio-safety Bill 2014 yesterday, import, transit, research and development, and introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country have now become illegal.

GMOs are organisms or microorganisms, whose genetic material has been altered by means of genetic engineering and the source of genetically modified foods.  They are also capable of reproducing in the natural environment.

Of the 67 members present, 66 voted “Yes” for the bill while one abstained.

The bill went for a joint sitting, as the two houses could not agree on whether the bill should cover animal health besides human health.  The houses also differed on whether the National Environment Protection Act should prevail when bio-safety issues have a bearing on the conservation and protection of environment.

The joint sitting endorsed that animal health would be covered, and that the national bio-safety board would exercise the jurisdiction and powers to discharge the mandates conferred by the bill.  The board will be the highest decision making body for issues related to bio-safety.

However, the joint committee chairman, Ritu Raj Chhetri, said that some of the goods that are already coming into Bhutan contain GMOs. “I was alarmed to know during the stakeholders meeting that the oil supplied to boarding schools through the World Food Programme (WFP) contains GMOs,” he said.

Although the bill now makes import of GMOs illegal, Ritu Raj Chhetri said, the import of GMOs might need to be allowed on a case-by-case basis. “But as of now, we don’t have the capacity to identify the GMOs,” he said.

Ritu Raj Chhetri said the committee held three meetings to draw the recommendations on the two clauses. “The two disputed clauses were important and we discussed them at length,” he said.

The bill will now be submitted to His Majesty for royal assent.

Bhutan became a member of the Cartagena Protocol on bio-safety, a supplementary agreement of the convention on biological diversity in 2002.  The legislation is also part of fulfilling the obligations of the convention.

However, the traditional and domestic methods of animal and plant breeding; traditional and domestic exchange and sale of local seeds, plants, and livestock; gene sequencing, tissue culture, and other similar methods, which do not involve the use of modern biotechnology, would be allowed as usual.

The legislation also aims to protect the domestic and wild biodiversity, promote food security, and safeguard human as well as animal health.

The board would be created with the implementation of the Bill and chaired by the agriculture minister, with members from agriculture, economics affairs, education and home ministries.

The Bhutan Agriculture and Food Regulatory Authority (BAFRA) will be the implementing agency.  The bill was deliberated in the Assembly last summer, while the Council discussed it in the winter session.

According to the bill, any person suffering damages or losses as a result of an offense under the law will be compensated.  Any decision by the board to issue may be appealed to a court within 10 working days.

By MB Subba