A meeting was recently held on Agro-biotechnology and Bio-safety in Belmopan. It was at this meeting that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) was fully discussed. (A GMO is any altered organism as a result of modern bio-engineering. A GMO is created when the genome of an organism is altered. The first GMOs were bacteria in 1973. GM mice were generated in 1974. Insulin producing bacteria were commercialized in 1982 and the genetically modified food has been sold since 1994.) Coming out from that meeting held earlier this month in Belmopan was a consensus by those in favor and against the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Belize, that regulatory mechanisms must first firmly be in place before its use.

Thus far; efforts to further discuss the GMO issue has involved many persons.

"There is a Bio-Safety council, this Bio-Safety Council will have to analyze what are the threats, what are the safeguards, make good consultation with all the stakeholders in the public and private sector, with the population, and make sure to also look at the experiences regionally," says Dr. Muhammad Ibrahim, the main representative of the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) in Belize.

Indeed; the Government of Belize appointed a National Bio-safety Committee in 2002, which later became the National Bio-safety Council. This body is chaired by the Ministry of Agriculture and has been working on a National Bio-safety Policy for Belize that has involved wide public consultation and approved by Cabinet in 2009.

Roberto Harrison, Chief Agriculture Officer, says that this National Bio-Safety Council, "...remains active in the development and implementation of the National Bio-Safety Framework."

This has occurred in view that "...there has been much controversy discussion in the public on the issue of GMOs in Belize, with two very strong sides for and against the introduction of GMOs, one can recall the destruction of 'Bt Corn' in Central Farm and more recently the destruction of Round Up soybean in Little Belize", reminds Harrison.

"While the Ministry of Natural Resources and Agriculture has not taken a position in favor or against this issue (GMOs), it has recognized that a lot of information coming from the two sides is not necessarily based on sound scientific basis," also says Roberto Harrison.

As part of the preparatory phase to educate Belizeans on the issue of GMOs, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture (IICA) brought in two experts earlier this month to further discuss GMOs. These two experts were Dr. Pedro Rocha from IICA and Dr. Juan Izqueirdo Fernandez from the Food and Agriculture Organization. Both experts were able to attend workshops and have education sessions with the local media during their stay in Belize.

Columbian Dr. Pedro Rocha is a specialist in Biotechnology and Bio-safety working out of the Headquarters of IICA in San Jose, Costa Rica. During his brief stay in Belize, Dr. Rocha attempted to demystify some of the issues relating to GMOs.

Dr. Pedro Rocha told the Guardian that the manipulation of genes in the laboratory is a very simple manipulation, with a couple of genes being moved from one species to another. He says that the evolution of those genes in those manipulated plants are not affected in future generations and are equivalent to the conventional plant. Such gene transfer or trans-genesis on the final product of gene crops does not damage genetic biodiversity in either animals or plants.

"There are some established(sic) showing a positive effect of using this kind of technology on biodiversity because you are not using the pesticides and agro-chemicals that could harm directly the biodiversity associated to the crops, therefore at least from the biological point of view, when you do the balance it seems that GM Crops are causing more benefits to the environment than harm or risks to the environment, says Dr. Pedro Rocha.

But what about genetic or pollen flow from GM crops to the conventional plants? To this Dr. Rocha says that "Pollen flow exists in conventional varieties in the same way they exist in GM Crops. Nothing is going to happen and nothing has happened in the past with the conventional material, therefore the likelihood of it happening with this GM varieties is not high."

There is an opportunity to improve the quality to GM Crops says Dr. Rocha. For example, if the transgenic corn is compared to the conventional corn, the phytonutrients are "essentially the same" and can be changed and improved in subsequent corn crops.

According to Dr. Pedro Rocha, the best way to conserve biodiversity is not to avoid using any particular technology in the field, but to develop germplasm banks.

Work by Dr. Pedro Rocha and his team remains as they will have to convince Mennonite farmers like David Johansen from Our Heritage Seed, operating in Spanish Lookout, that GM Crops is not a route to take.

"GMO is not plant breeding as many suppose, but trans-gene splicing from one type to another and even from animals to plants. It changes the DNA of a plant or animal. The result is that it no longer is what it was, this could have very dangerous consequences as this disrupts the chain of life, it could be compared to putting gravel in a gear box�this is not something that should be played with. Let us preserve and pass on seed that is pure from gene modifications," states Johansen.

Whatever outcome the GMO debate in Belize takes, Fransico Guttierrez from the Belize and Agriculture Health Authority (BAHA), the contact point for Bio-Safety, maintains that we need to strengthen the Bio Safety Policy and to look beyond Round Up ready, "�let us do a cost benefit analysis, let us develop the framework, let us push the legislation�," he said.

The Belize Grain Growers Association (BGGA) is now saying that Belize is already importing many foods containing GM crops and recently had on display a wide variety of packaged goods coming into the Country. Specially produced cheese, sugars, oils, breakfast and canned vegetable foods now being sold across Belize all contain constituents from GM crops claims the BGGA.

The Guardian