Addis Ababa- Ethiopia (PANA) -- When Ethiopia's ratification of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety entered into force on 7 January 2004, it was just another deal of no concern to the man in the street here.
After all, biosafety is a professional jargon that has no equivalent in the local languages.
The public is largely in the dark about the objectives of this international protocol.
However, consumer rights lobbyists and some lawyers are on their toes to protect the ignorant and gullible population, as well as the environment in which they live, from the risks of modern biotechnology.
Though still a small lobby group, based in the capital, Addis Ababa, its prowess is obvious from their determination to curb health and environmental risks that could arise from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
For a population whose fate seems to be either hidden in the rain-bearing winds or wrapped in shipments of relief food provided annually by donors, the adverse effects of modern biotechnology loom very close.
"This is a very serious issue and we have to take measures now to place new curbs on certain products imported into the country without proper checks," Gebremedhine Birega, vice president of AHa Ethiopian Consumer Protection Association, told PANA.
Ethiopia is a party to the international Convention on Biological Diversity that on 29 January 2000 adopted a supplementary agreement to the Convention known as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
The agreement entered into force on 11 September 2003.
The Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.
It establishes an advance informed agreement (AIA) procedure for ensuring that countries are provided with the information necessary to make informed decisions before agreeing to the import of such organisms into their territory.
Under the Protocol, a Biosafety Clearing-House has since been set up to facilitate the exchange of information on living modified organisms and to assist countries in the implementation of the Protocol.
After holding workshops on risk assessment and management of GMOs, Ethiopian stakeholders have come up with a draft biosafety proclamation that will be forwarded to the government for action.
"Biosafety is new to Ethiopia and we have initiated this process in the best interest of the country," said Mahlet Teshome, assistant coordinator of the national biosafety framework project.
Expressing concern about the impact of GMOs on human health and the environment, she said it was crucial for Ethiopia to put in place some regulatory system.
Mahlet, a lawyer by profession, told PANA that as a new technology in a poor country, biosafety requires better management.
However, she admitted that for some years Ethiopia would have to contend with the capacity gap to maintain a clean and safe environment.
The draft proclamation aims at protecting Ethiopia's biological diversity, the environment and the health and safety of people, by preventing the adverse effects of new organisms developed through modern technology.
Once the law to that effect is passed by parliament, hopefully by mid 2005, it will apply not only to imports and exports of Ethiopia but also GMO products in transit to other countries.
The Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia would give permission for transit on condition that there is the advance informed agreement of the importing country and insurance coverage in case of accidental release of the organisms.
The country's poverty and chronic food deficits are factors likely to make Ethiopians disgusted about biosafety.
But in the long run, public awareness is the vital tool with which stakeholders, including the business community and consumers who have limited access to health care, can keep the adverse effects and risks of GMOs at bay.
In addition, Ethiopia wants for expertise and laboratories to check the harm that could be caused directly or indirectly by GMOs, such as reduction in local crop yields, soil contamination, and any other consequential economic, social or cultural damages.
Such damages would usually creep in slowly and take a long time to detect.
By then the culprit could be untraceable and nobody would stand up and be counted for the costs of redress.
Inter-state cooperation is also important in enforcing biosafety measures.
So far just 27 African countries have ratified, acceded to, accepted or approved the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
These are Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nigeria, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia.