Nairobi — With the opening up of their borders under the Common Market protocol, East African countries face a new challenge of handling genetically modified products.
For instance, Kenya is almost ready to start commercial production of GM agricultural products - a development that could see the products enter neighbours' markets courtesy of the Common Market.
"If GM products are grown in Kenya, they will definitely find their way into Uganda and Tanzania," a food safety expert at African Biosafety Network of Expertise Dr Allan Liavoga told a regional workshop on biosafety and genetic modification.
In neither Uganda and Tanzania is commercial production permitted; the licences given are strictly for research into production of GM products.
Field trials are going on for production of GM cotton, cassava and banana.
Though the two countries have a policy, they do not have legislation while Kenya has the Biosafety Act.
The Act has already been operationalised into eight sets of regulations that would govern commercial production and importation of GM products for sale or for food aid.
However, the two are in the process of adopting the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety using a template developed by the African Union.
According to the acting chief executive of the National Biosafety Authority Harrison Macharia, the East African Community should take the lead in driving the process of harmonising these regulations.
"With the open borders, we need to be on the same page," Mr Macharia said.
However, Dr Rishan Abdallah, who led the Tanzanian delegation to the meeting, said that the process of harmonisation is a drawn out one, which may require more efforts beyond just the EAC secretariat.
Dr Abdallah cited the harmonisation of seed policies by a working group which was facilitated by a different organisation before it was passed on to the EAC secretariat to implement in the countries.
Even as the EAC countries worry over harmonisation, a similar effort is going on elsewhere.
The Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa) through the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa, which is developing a new set of policies governing commercial production, trade and emergency food aid in GM agricultural produce in Comesa.
African Agricultural Technology Foundation's Dr Francis Nang'ayo said the EAC countries should take up these rules.
"If Tanzania were to join Comesa, we could as well use these rules," Dr Nang'ayo added.
Harmonising these regulations is further complicated by differences in existing laws governing the handling of such products.
Whereas it takes up to 180 days to obtain clearance for research in GM products from Tanzanian authorities, it needs 270 days in Uganda.
In Kenya, it is between 60 and 150 days.
While Tanzania has committees under different ministries to evaluate applications that relate to it, Kenya and Uganda have a single committee each to co-ordinate all applications.
This is despite the fact that all three countries are guided by the Cartagena Protocol.
As the East African countries embark on the journey towards harmonising their GM policies, experts say that even though GM agricultural production is still shrouded in controversy, countries need to build their legal and institutional framework to allow for the commercial production of modern biotechnology, just in case its fortunes change in future.
"We need to position ourselves so that when the opportunity comes, we can seize it," deputy director of African Biosafety Network of Expertise Samuel Timpo said.