The African Biosafety Model Law was adopted by the AU at its 74th Ordinary Session in Lusaka, Zambia, in July 2001, and urged member states to use the African Biosafety Model Law to draft their own national legal instruments.

This model law emanated from a highly participatory process which included researchers, governments, and civil society groups. It reflects a broad consensus on issues of biotechnology development. The regulatory framework utilizes the discretion given by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety for countries to adopt more stringent protective measures than the agreed minimum set out in the Protocol. The African Biosafety Model Law recognizes the importance of Africa as a centre of origin and a centre of diversity with regard to food and other crops. It makes provision for considering socioeconomic factors in assessing risks and opportunities. Key legal principles and approaches incorporated include:

  • Precautionary;
  • The sovereign right of every country to require a rigorous risk assessment of any GMO for any use before any decision regarding the GMO is made; and
  • A liability and redress regime.

The African Biosafety Model Law provides a holistic and comprehensive set of biosafety rules including issues that are not dealt with by the Biosafety Protocol. These include mandatory labelling and identification or traceability requirements for GMOs and GM food, and liability and redress for harm caused by GMOs to human health and the environment, and for resultant economic loss (Mayet 2003).


Six regional economic communities in Africa, namely the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS), the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Arab Mahgreb Union (AMU) have taken the lead in developing policy guidance on GMO research, production and marketing in their respective regions.

In Kampala, in November 2002, agricultural ministers of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), agreed to create a regional policy on GMOs. Similarly, the SADC established an advisory committee on GMOs to develop guidelines and to assist member states in guarding against potential risks in food safety, contamination of genetic resources, ethical issues, trade- related issues and consumer concerns. These are set out in Box 11. The EAC has recommended reviewing and developing a common policy on GMOs. The IGAD members formed a Verification and Monitoring Team (VMT) to ensure that food assistance be certified as free of GMOs. Fifteen members of ECOWAS attended a meeting to better understand and discuss the benefits and threats of GMOs.

Box 11: SADC recommendations on genetically modified organisms

The following recommendations were formulated by the SADC Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and Biosafety and were approved by the SADC in August 2003 as interim measures aimed at guiding the region on issues relating to biotechnology and biosafety.

Handling of food aid

  • The Southern African Development Community should develop and adopt a harmonized transit information and management system for GM food aid designed to facilitate transboundary movement in a safe and expeditious manner.
  • The Southern African Development Community is encouraged to source food aid preferably from within the region, and advise all cooperating partners accordingly.
  • Donors providing GM food aid should comply with the Prior Informed Consent principle and with the notification requirements in accordance with Article 11 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
  • Food aid consignments involving grain or any propagative plant material that may contain GMOs should be milled or sterilized prior to distribution to the beneficiary population.
  • Food aid in transit that may contain GMOs should be clearly identified and labelled in accordance with national legislation.
  • Southern African Development Community countries managing or handling food aid in transit that may contain GMOs are encouraged in the absence of national legislation to make use of the requirements under the African Biosafety Model Law and/or the South African Guidelines on the handling of transit material which may be GM.

Policy and regulations

  • Each member state should develop national biotechnology policies and strategies and expedite the process of establishing national biosafety regulatory systems.
  • All member states should sign and ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the CBD.
  • The region should develop a harmonised policy and regulatory systems based on the African Biosafety Model Law and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and other relevant international processes.
  • Member states without a regulatory framework for GM crops should use approved guidelines and should not import genetically modified grain for seed before approved guidelines are in place.
  • Risk assessments should be done on a case-by-case basis and every genetic modification should be tested in the environment under which it will be released.


  • Member states should develop capacities at national and regional levels in order to develop and exploit the benefits of biotechnology.
  • The Southern African Development Community should allocate resources for capacity-building in management of biotechnology and biosafety.
  • The Southern African Development Community should encourage member states to commission studies on the implications of biotechnology and biosafety on agriculture, environment, health and socioeconomics as part of an integrated monitoring and evaluation system.

Public awareness and participation

  • Member states should develop public awareness and participatory programmes on biotechnology and biosafety that involve all stakeholders.

Sources: SADC 2004


The need for adequate national policies and laws to regulate biotechnology research and establish effective assessment processes which safeguard human and environmental health is widely acknowledged. There is a need to develop harmonized approaches to biotechnology and the African Biosafety Model Law provides a good basis for this, as does the Model Law for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers, Breeders and Regulation of Access to Biological Resources. Other region-wide organizations such as New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and its Science and Technology Secretariat could have an important role.

At least nine countries have biosafety legislation or guidelines including Benin, Cameroon, Malawi, Mauritius, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho and Swaziland all have draft legislation that addressees the issue of biosafety, the commercialization of GM crops and the importation of GM foods.

Developed country aid agencies and international organizations have had a keen interest in supporting the development of an enabling legal environment for transgenic research and biosafety. Some of these initiatives appear in Annex 3 Table 2. The United States Agency for International Development is the most active in this area. The US has been a keen supporter of GM crop development, offering it as food aid, and the US is also the largest producer of GM crops. Several African countries have or are in the process of developing biosafety policies and law through a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – Global Environmental Facility (GEF) initiative. This capacity-building project supported 100 developing countries to prepare national biosafety frameworks. Thirty-six African countries have or are participating in this project. An AU biosafety capacity-building project designed to spearhead the harmonization of biosafety legislation between member states based on the African Biosafety Model Law has been developed.