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Playing it safe: Promoting sustainable biotech in India

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Indian farmers inspect a crop. Source: S. Jayaraj

Modern biotechnology promises remarkable advances in agriculture, medicine and industrial products. The genomes of many plants and animals are being mapped, and techniques are being developed to manipulate genetic material and fuse cells beyond normal breeding barriers.

These advances have led to the appearance of the development of resilient and sometimes totally new projects referred to as Living Modified Organisms (LMOs), or commonly as Genetically Modified Organisms. Some of these may be beneficial to humans, but they need to be properly assessed for potential risks, monitored and tested over extended periods to ensure their safety.

What do we mean by biosafety and why is it important?

Biosafety refers to the safe handling, transport and use of organisms – whether animals, plants or bacteria – that have been modified using modern biotechnology.

The Government of India has committed to developing and deploying agricultural biotechnology to meet the needs of rural communities and growing urban populations. But it wants to do this safely and in compliance with its international commitments.

LMOs are any living organism with a novel combination of genetic material obtained thanks to modern biotechnology. While LMOs can bring benefits to agriculture, nutrition and health, they can also – if not used safely – harm species and disrupt ecosystems.

“As the country with the second biggest population in the world, if India can get biosafety systems right, that’s a huge benefit for humankind,” says Alex Owusu-Biney, a UN Environment biosafety expert.

UN Environment works in partnership with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and the Convention on Biological Diversity to assist the Parties to the Cartagena Protocol (of which India is one) to meet their commitments under the agreement.

The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a supplement to the Convention on Biological Diversity, is an international agreement that aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of organisms that have been modified using biotechnology. The Protocol, which entered into force in 2003 and has 171 Parties, aims to guard against adverse effects on biological diversity.

The project and what it has achieved

The UN Environment-led 2012-2016 India project titled “GEF Phase II Capacity Building Project on Biosafety” was officially closed in June 2017 after achieving its objectives.

Key partners included international and national agencies, among them the ILSI Research Foundation, which provided technical support on risk assessment and risk management; Research and Information Systems India – support on Socioeconomic Considerations; and India’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, which implemented the project with support from the Biotechnology Consortium India Limited. This was a unique Public-Private sector and multi-stakeholder partnership.

The project built capacity in human and infrastructure resources for improved biosafety management in line with the National Biodiversity Action Plan, the National Biotechnology Development Strategy, the National Environment Policy, and the Cartagena Protocol, among others.

It also strengthened the biosafety management system in India, including the handling, transport, packaging and identification of LMOs; and helped raise awareness of the issues. A survey was done of the pipeline of genetically engineered crops being developed in India.

Eight Biology Documents on Sorghum, Tomato, Papaya, Chickpea, Pigeon Pea, Mustard, Potato and Rubber were developed to assist in Risk Assessment and Risk Management. This is the first comprehensive national intervention outside the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to develop such supportive tools.

Under the project, four laboratories for detection of LMOs – the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Punjab Biotechnology Incubator, DNA Fingerprinting and Transgenic Crop Monitoring Laboratory, and the Export Inspection Agency in Kochi – have been strengthened. They are now officially gazetted as the National Referral Laboratories for the detection of LMOs.

The Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety will enter into force on 5 March 2018.

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Promoting food production that values ecosystems

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Kenya is looking to develop agricultural activity that recognizes the benefits of biodiversity and climate-friendly land management.

UN Environment and the National Museums of Kenya have agreed to work together to develop policy reforms in agriculture that take into account the value of ecosystems. A scoping workshop for the three-year German-funded project entitled Supporting Biodiversity and Climate-friendly Land Management in Agricultural Landscapes will take place on 21-22 February 2018. Other collaborating countries are Colombia, Tanzania and Thailand.

Within UN Environment the project is being led by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) unit, which focuses on “making nature’s values visible”.

The project seeks to:

  • mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels
  • help decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity.
  • demonstrate their value in economic terms.

Agriculture is at the centre of human well-being and sustainable development. It has influenced our value systems, our cultural heritage, the structure and location of our communities, and the development of other sectors in the economy.

However, the ties between food systems and human health and cultural heritage are increasingly becoming invisible, as are the impacts our production systems are having on nature. This invisibility discourages stewardship of our natural resources and fosters their unsustainable use, generating negative impacts for both present and future generations.

2015 TEEB for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) Interim Report seeks to explain the complex links between ecosystems, agriculture and the food we eat. It provides insights into the importance of ecosystems and biodiversity, and the (visible and invisible) impacts of different production systems on human and ecological well-being.

Much of the project’s work will focus on building national, regional and local government capacity to produce tailored economic assessments of ecosystems. The ecosystems and agricultural landscapes that are critical to policy will be chosen at the workshop.

The project will consolidate guidance and training for TEEB national implementation; provide technical support on valuation and accounting for specific national-level TEEB projects; and enhance the communication and dissemination of TEEB results.

UN Environment

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5 ways the United Kingdom is leading the fight against plastic pollution

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We’re only two months into 2018, but this year has already seen a number of concrete steps to combat plastic pollution in the United Kingdom. Changing public opinion, along with new restrictions on sending plastics to China (which previously took in 66 per cent of the UK’s plastic waste), have forced businesses and government bodies to reconsider traditional strategies for dealing with discarded plastic.

1. Queen Elizabeth bans disposable plastic

Buckingham Palace has implemented a plan to phase out the use of disposable plastics at royal estates. The new waste plan calls for ending the use of plastic straws and bottles in public and private dining areas. Additionally, biodegradable takeaway containers will be introduced. The Queen was reportedly inspired after working on a wildlife film with Sir David Attenborough, whose recent involvement in the BBC series Blue Planet 2 has been praised for bringing greater attention to the issue of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.

2. Restaurants ditch plastic straws

An increasing number of UK restaurants and pubs are joining the global movement to end the use of plastic straws. Chains such as Costa Coffee, Pizza Express, Wagamama restaurants, and Wetherspoons have all put plans into place to phase out the use of non-biodegradable drinking straws in 2018. A number of independent establishments have also followed suit, encouraging customers to forego the straw or use a biodegradable one.

3. Scotland announces nationwide bans

While many companies and individuals have made great progress by phasing out plastic straws, the British nation of Scotland took it a step further by announcing plans for a countrywide ban on straws, which will be developed this year. This came on the heels of a previous announcement in January to ban the sale and manufacture of plastic cotton buds, which will be phased out over the course of 2018.

4. The UK says no to microbeads

In January, a government ban on plastic microbeads officially went into effect. The miniature plastic particles are widely used in cosmetics, soaps, and toothpastes, and due to their small size, can slip through treatment plants and pollute rivers and lakes. The first phase of the ban prevents the plastics from being used in the making of cosmetics and cleaning products, followed by a complete sales ban in July. This law follows similar ones passed by the United States, Canada, and Ireland, as well as moves by global cosmetics companies to phase out the use of such products.

5. Supermarkets go plastic free

In January the UK supermarket chain Iceland made headlines when it announced plans to eliminate plastic packaging for all Iceland branded products. The company released a five-year strategy that calls for introducing paper and pulp food containers, as well as paper bags, all of which can be returned to in-store recycling facilities. The company has already banned plastic straws and is beginning to introduce the new packaging over the next couple of months. Other companies such as Tesco and Aldi UK have announced similar plans, a response to increased demands from shoppers for environmental responsibility.

This article was originally published by UN Environment

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India to host World Environment Day 2018

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Today, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, and Erik Solheim, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Head of UN Environment, jointly announced that India will be hosting the global World Environment Day celebrations on 5 June 2018.

“Beat Plastic Pollution”, the theme for World Environment 2018, urges governments, industry, communities, and individuals to come together and explore sustainable alternatives and urgently reduce the production and excessive use of single-use plastic polluting our oceans, damaging marine life and threatening human health.

“India is excited to host the World Environment Day this year on June 5. Indian philosophy and lifestyle has long been rooted in the concept of co-existence with nature. We are committed to making Planet Earth a cleaner and greener place”, said Dr. Harsh Vardhan.

He added: “If each and every one of us does at least one green good deed daily towards our Green Social Responsibility, there will be billions of green good deeds daily on the planet.”

The Government of India has committed to organizing and promoting the World Environment Day celebrations through a series of engaging activities and events generating strong public interest and participation. From pan-Indian plastic clean-up drives in public areas, national reserves and forests to simultaneous beach clean-up activities – India will lead the initiative by setting an example.

“India will be a great global host of 2018’s World Environment Day celebrations,” said Erik Solheim at the announcement on Monday.

He added: “The country has demonstrated tremendous global leadership on climate change and the need to shift to a low carbon economy, and India will now help galvanize greater action on plastics pollution. It’s a global emergency affecting every aspect of our lives. It’s in the water we drink and the food we eat. It’s destroying our beaches and oceans. India will now be leading the push to save our oceans and planet.”

India is emerging as a leader, given it has one of the highest recycling rates in the world. It can be instrumental in combating plastic pollution. By hosting World Environment Day 2018, the Indian government is accelerating its leadership on an issue of tremendous magnitude.

World Environment Day is a UN Environment-led global event, the single largest celebration of our environment each year, which takes place on June 5 and is celebrated by thousands of communities worldwide.

Since it began in 1972, it has grown to become a global platform for public outreach that is widely celebrated across the globe.

Most of all, World Environment Day is a day of everyone around the world to take ownership of their environment and to actively engage in the protection of our earth.

Plastic Pollution facts:

  • Every year the world uses 500 billion plastic bags
  • Each year, at least 8 million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans, the equivalent of a full garbage truck every minute.
  • In the last decade, we produced more plastic than in the whole last century
  • 50 percent of the plastic we use is single-use or disposable
  • We buy 1 million plastic bottles every minute
  • Plastic makes up 10% of all of the waste we generate

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