Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458  
© 2004 by Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile Reception date: April, 30, 2004

International Biosafety Protocol: the Trinidad Position

E. Julian Duncan
Department of Life Sciences
The University of the West Indies
St. Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago
Tel: 868 662 4216
Fax: 868 663 5241
E-mail: panodra@carib-link.net

Financial support: OAS Project number AE 145-01 "Biosafety Regulations in Latin America and The Caribbean within the framework of the International Biosafety Protocol".

Keywords: biosafety, legislation, capacity building.


As a part of the Organization of American States sponsored project ‘Biosafety Regulations in Latin America and the Caribbean within the framework of the International Biosafety Protocol,’ a survey was carried out in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to evaluate the degree to which the existing legislation met with the requirements of the Cartagena Protocol and the capacity building needs to meet with said requirements. It was found that there is in existence legislation that addresses aspects of safety relative to the environment and human health, however, none specifically relates to genetically modified organisms or products there from. It is felt that some regulations of the said legislation can be amended to address the issues in question. It was found that research in genetic engineering is currently carried on a limited scale and is self-regulated. There is need for training in all aspects of biosafety at all levels among personnel likely to be involved in assessment and regulation.


The twin-island state of Trinidad and Tobago sits on the edge of the South American continental shelf. The biota of the islands is continental, rather than oceanic, and is reflective of much of what existed at the time of separation of the islands from mainland South America, an event estimated too have taken place about 15,000 years ago (Kenny, 2000). As a result, on the basis of size of the country (Trinidad 4828 km2 and Tobago 300 km2) biodiversity measured by unit area is rather high. Some 2656 species of vascular plants in 186 families and 670 species of vertebrate fauna in 137 families have been documented.

The ecosystems of the islands are fragile and vulnerable to the so-called ‘acts of God,’ but more so to the stupidity of human beings and require careful management. It is thus not surprising that the country became a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – ratified on 1996.08.01 and as a consequence to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety on 2000. 10. 05.

Cognizant of the requirements of the CDB and of the Cartagena Protocol, the Government established first, a Committee to develop a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) to provide it with support in its plans for conservation and sustainable use of the country’s biodiversity within the context of its socio-economic development programmes; secondly, a National Committee to develop a National Biosafety Protocol. This latter committee discussed issues of biotechnology and biosafety with stakeholders in areas of agriculture, environmental protection, food supply, health, research and trade. It was recognized that public education in GMOs/LMOs and their implication on the environment and human health was necessary. Through the Environment Management Authority (EMA) the country accessed GEF funds to develop public education programmes and to facilitate the development of a biosafety and regulatory framework. The issue of capacity building has not been adequately addressed, however.

In January 2002, the organization of American States (OAS) approved a project “Biosafety Regulations in Latin America and the Caribbean within the framework of the International Biosafety Protocol.” Phase 1 of the project focused on the evaluation of the political and regulatory systems in Chile, Peru and Colombia (Verastegui et al. 2004). In Phase 2 the survey was extended to six countries in Central America and the Caribbean, one of which was Trinidad and Tobago, with a view to identifying the needs for the establishment of the biosafety protocol with emphasis on relevant legislation and on capacity building.

There are in Trinidad and Tobago several organizations that address safety issues related to food and drugs (Food and Drugs Division of the Ministry of Health), the environment (the EMA within the Ministry of Public utilities and the Environment) agriculture (the Plant and Animal Quarantine Services of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources) and importations (Customs and Excise Division of the Ministry of Finance). There is established legislation in these areas, which however, in most instances is old and in need of revision, enhancement and harmonization, but none of these address GMOs/LMOs specifically. In addition, although there are established positions in some of the above-mentioned divisions, personnel have not been trained specifically in biosafety relating to GMOs/LMOs.

Biosafety in research is self-regulated at the present time and there is neither established legation nor established bodies to address that issue.

The results of the project as it relates to Trinidad and Tobago are presented and discussed here.

Materials and Methods


To determine the extent to which existing legislation in Trinidad and Tobago meet with the requirements of the IBP, discussions were held with personnel from:

The Ministry of Legal Affairs;

The Food and Drugs Division of the Ministry of Health;

The Environment Management Authority of the Ministry of Public Utilities and the Environment.

Article 1 of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was used as an apt guide to the areas that should be addressed with regards to any proposed legislation on GMOs and LMOs. Special attention was paid to ‘the precautionary approach’ and to ‘adequate protection.’ The existing legislation was examined with a view to determine whether any of the said legislation can be amended to address the relevant issues.

State of the Art and Capacity Building

To determine the state of the art of genetic engineering in all its ramifications and the available capacity for testing, risk evaluation and risk management of GMOs and LMOs, a questionnaire was sent to:

The Biotechnology Laboratory of The University of the West Indies;

Research laboratories in both the public and private sectors.

The questionnaire was also sent to selected Commercial concerns involved in agriculture and food in an effort to determine the extent to which GMOs / LMOs are imported into the country.

Results and Discussion


The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has as yet no legislation to deal with GMOs/LMOs. The Cabinet of the Government has appointed a committee to develop a national policy and regulations on biosafety, a legal sub-committee of which has been formed to deal specifically with relevant legislative reforms. Cognizance is taken of the fact that the precautionary approach is based on the principle that allows the country to take certain decisions based on the insufficiency of information regarding an import particularly as it relates to any adverse effects it might have on the environment and human health. Adequate protection is the focal point of national policy and by extension legislation. Such protection is required at three stages: prior to arrival of the product; upon arrival; and during domestic use. Existing legislation was found which deals with safety in areas other than GMOs that may be amended appropriately.

Before arrival. Plant Protection Regulations 1997 regulations 7(1), 14(h), (i), (j), 15 which state in part “All planting material is subject to such inspection and treatment as may be necessary, as a condition of entry into Trinidad and Tobago”, (Government of Trinidad and Tobago, 1975).

It is the consensus that the approach in Trinidad and Tobago will not be prohibitive, but precautionary. A provision such as the above is therefore essential in that to take any precaution, inspection and any necessary treatment must take place. It follows therefore that provision must be made for inspectors and a regulatory body with responsibility for inspection.

“The entry status of fruits or vegetables shall be determined according to pests present in the exporting country”. This may be applicable in instances where there is difficulty in determining the risk, but the record of the exporting country in terms of biosafety has been documented and is therefore known.

“Garbage or refuse entering the territorial waters or temporarily in the ports of Trinidad and Tobago shall be subject to such safeguards as specified by the Plant Quarantine Service, in co-operation with other Governmental agencies including the departments responsible for public health and animal health”. It is suggested that such an approach be taken in order to facilitate risk assessment. Bodies and persons charged with the responsibility for doing so must be clearly defined and the assessment should commence, as is provided above, before landing where possible.

The requisite persons and institutions should be able to work along with existing agencies and personnel such as the Customs and Excise Division and Plant Quarantine. However, roles must be clearly defined for effectiveness and efficiency.

“Garbage retained onboard in transit vessels and aircraft shall be enclosed in tightly-sealed, insect-proof containers to prevent insect escape and in the case of ships in port, shall be inside the ship’s rail”. Specifications for containing GMOs/LMOs should be provided for and should be appropriate to the particular article.

“The Plant Quarantine Service shall issue phytosanitary certificates based on inspections performed at the request of exporters to aid them in meeting entry requirements for Trinidad and Tobago”. The bodies and persons responsible for risk assessment in conjunction with a Biosafety Clearing House should issue similar certificates be recognized in any court of competent jurisdiction as proof that the required assessments has been carried out and there has been compliance with all law.

Food and Drugs Act Chapter 30:01 sections 6(1),(2), (Government of Trinidad and Tobago, 1960) which state:

“Any person who labels, packages, treats, processes, sells or advertises any food in a manner that is false, misleading or deceptive or is likely to create erroneous impression regarding its character, value, quantity, consumption merit or safety is guilty of an offence.’ ‘An article of food that is not labeled or packaged as required by the Regulation, or is labelled or packaged contrary to the Regulations shall be deemed to be labeled or packaged contrary to subsection (1)”. Labelling is of paramount importance to ensuring biosafety. This provision is relevant at the stage prior to entry into the country. Any law should be specific in directing that a label on such goods contains specific information. However, requirements should not be so onerous as to discourage trade. Trinidad and Tobago has to consider CARICOM and FTAA. Provision should be made for penalties for failing to label, the magnitude of such should depend on whether the offender is an individual, a company or government.

On arrival. Current legislation in Plant Protection Regulations 1997 regulations 3(1), 7(1) 9, 14, state in part “the entry into Trinidad and Tobago of all restricted articles which may present a pest risk to the agriculture of Trinidad and Tobago shall be subject to examination upon arrival by a Plant Quarantine Officer or a designated employee and if necessary, to treatment, destruction or re-export, as the case may warrant”. This section implies that assessment takes place. Neither a consensus nor a policy has been formulated in relation to the issue of disposal of articles or material that have been deemed a risk to biosafety. Provision needs to be made in terms of destruction and/or re-export. Treatment does not appear to be either applicable or feasible.

“The entry of plant pests shall not be authorized unless a plant permit has been issued to a recognized scientific and research institution, where the plant is destined for use by that institution”. Such a provision is necessary if we are to evolve scientifically as a nation. A certificate of this kind should stand as proof that the particular material is to be used exclusively for research.

“Articles subject to permit requirements shall also be subject to the safeguards directed by Plant Quarantine Service….”. It should be reiterated that there must be cohesive and organized action by relevant agencies. The provision in its entirety also takes the position of the importers into consideration regarding efficiency of inspection, which is important. The time frame may need revision based on the complexity of the resting required and any such limitations in capacity.

Domestic use. Current legislation, with some amendment, is applicable here. The Food and Drugs Act Chapter 30:01 sections 6(1), (2) as quoted aboveare relevant (Government of Trinidad and Tobago, 1960).These provisions can be used as is, in biosafety regulations.

Plant Protection Regulation 1997 regulation 18 states that “No fruit, vegetable or plant material which is the subject of an Order made by the Minister, shall be carried to Tobago from Trinidad, or to Trinidad, or to Trinidad and Tobago, unless the fruit, vegetable or plant material is accompanied by a Phytosanitary Certificate”.It should be borne in mind in legislating that Trinidad and Tobago are separated by water, as this section appropriately does.

The regulations state that “The Minister may make Regulations for carrying the purposes and provisions of this Act into effect, and, in particular, but not so as to restrict the generality of the forgoing, may make regulations:

  1. declaring that any food or drug or class of food or drugs is adulterated if any prescribed substance or class of substances is present therein or has been added thereto or extracted there from;
  2. respecting
    1. labeling and packaging and the offering, espousing and advertising for sale of food, drugs, cosmetics and device
  3. the size, dimensions, fill and other specifications of packages of food, drugs, cosmetics or device; and
    1. the sale or condition of sale of any food, drug, cosmetic or device; and
    2. the use of any substance as an ingredient in any food, drug, cosmetic or device, to prevent the consumer or purchaser thereof from being deceived or misled as to its quantity, character, value, composition, merit or safety or to prevent injury to health of the consumer or purchaser;
  4. prescribing standards of composition, strength, potency, purity, quality or other property of any article of food, drug cosmetic or device;
  5. as regards the importation of foods, drugs, cosmetics and devices in order to ensure compliance with this Act and the Regulations;
  6. as regards the powers and duties of inspectors and analysts and taking of samples and the seizure, detention, forfeiture and disposition of articles;
  7. providing for the analysis of food, drugs or cosmetics at the request of members of the public and prescribing a tariff of fees to be paid for the analysis.

The Minister’s power to make regulations should be based on the advice of the heads of a Biosafety Clearing House and a Risk Assessment Body. It is apparent that amendment of Acts and Regulations mentioned above is possible, however, given the wide scope of biosafety, the potential for growth and the uncertainty of long-term risk, legislation pertaining exclusively to biosafety should be drafted”.

State of the art

The Biotechnology Laboratory of the Department of Life Sciences of The University of the West Indies (UWI) is the only laboratory that currently is involved in genetic engineering. Two other laboratories CAB International and the Central Experimental Station (C.E.S) of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Marine Resources, have stated their intentions to initiate work in the area in the future.

The work in progress at the UWI is on plant species that are not sources of food. Recombinant vectors in bacteria and modified agrobacteria for transformation are currently the only modified organisms imported. Biosafety if self-regulated; the precautionary principle is put into practice in the planning of experiments. To date there has been no release of modified organisms into the environment. This is however planned subsequent to rigorous testing.

While personnel at some of the laboratories are conversant with the Precautionary Principle and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, a surprising number expressed ignorance of the two.

Commercial operations involved in agriculture and food to whom questionnaires were sent, claim not to import GMOs.

Capacity Building

At present the only personnel who appear to have some training in biosafety procedures as they relate to genetically modified organisms are at the UWI. However, these are few in number. Even at that institution, the majority of the persons involved are untrained in biosafety procedures.

The response to a question on the number of individuals each institution/organization should like to have trained showed that there is a high level of interest in training.

In discussion with personnel from various organizations and institutions it became evident that training was needed in the following areas:

  • Testing procedures for GMOs/LMOs for certifying labels, if labeling becomes mandatory
  • Training in biotechnology risk assessment and management as well as international trends in regulation for persons who are in and will function in regulatory roles in the area of safety
  • Training in the area of risk-benefit analysis as a basis for assessment of applications to conduct research or import
  • Training for a select group on the impact of biotechnology on biological models and emerging theoretical perspectives, research guidelines and procedures
  • Training for a panel in reviewing applications consistent with international standards and trends as regards:
    • assessment of ecological effects
    • assessment of human health impact
  • Training on topics relative to the release of genetically modified organisms.

While personnel at the University are capable of testing for constructs in material, they are in no position to do quantitative estimates. Further, while the laboratory is ideally suited for training young scientists in the practical aspects of genetic engineering, it cannot be looked upon as a source for testing.

Two possibilities were identified as laboratories, which with some upgrading and appropriately trained personnel, can serve as testing facilities. These are the laboratories of the Food and Drug Division of the Ministry of Health and the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (CARIEI). A new laboratory - apart of a laboratory complex proposed by the government – is shortly to be constructed for the Food and Drugs Division.  Such a laboratory could be upgraded to allow for the testing of GMOs. The Director of CARIRI has indicated that the organization has plans for building a fully equipped laboratory for testing GMOS. CARIRI at present has quite a few laboratories for testing in areas other that GMOs that have full international accreditation. There should be little problem in a laboratory set up be the institution getting accreditation as a testing facility. There are two scientists, one who holds a Ph. D, the other a Master’s degree at the Institute who are earmarked for training in techniques appropriate to CMO testing.

A regional project “Capacity Building in Biosafety for the Caribbean” is shortly to be implemented by the Caribbean Council for Science and Technology (CCST) with sponsorship of the Persz-Guerrero Trust Fund for Economic and Technical Cooperation Among Developing Countries and the Commonwealth Science Council. The aims of the project are to equip the Caribbean countries with some of the required technical expertise needed to satisfy their international obligations in Biosafety, as well as to help them to protect the health and well-being of their respective publics. It is hoped that the project would lead to the development of human resources for biosafety management through training workshops for technologists and scientists in risk assessment and management, including the safe transfer, handling, use and identification of GMOs and their products.


The author acknowledges with thanks the assistance given by Ms Lovann Superville, Project Officer, NIHERST with administrative and secretarial services and of Ms Pettal John, State Counsel I, Ministry of the Attorney General, whose report on the legislation of the country informed the results presented here.


Government of Trinidad and Tobago. Laws of Trinidad and Tobago: Food and Drugs Act, ch. 30, no. 01, act 8 of 1960. Government Printery, Port of Spain, Trinidad.

Government of Trinidad and Tobago. Laws of Trinidad and Tobago: Plant Protection Act. act no. 13 of 1975. Government Printery, Port of Spain, Trinidad.

KENNY, J.S. Views from the Ridge: Exploring the natural history of Trinidad and Tobago. Prospect Press, 6 prospect Avenue, Maraval, Port of Spain. 2000. 166 p.

VERASTEGI, J.; MARTINES, V.; ROCA, W.; de PENA, M. and GIL, L. The Multinational Biosafety Project of the Organization of American States. Electronic Journal of Biotechnology [online]. 15 April 2004, vol. 7, no. 1. Available from Internet: http://www.ejbiotechnology.info/content/vol7/issue1/full/6/index.html.

Supported by UNESCO / MIRCEN network 
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