Islam Online
By Ochieng’ Ogodo, Journalist – Kenya
July 16, 2009

Crop biotechnology has been around for nearly 14 years now and has been much embraced by the farming community in some countries of the global economic North, such as the US, as well as in some developing countries, like Argentina and Brazil among a few others. But Africa is still very slow in embracing this technology. According to the conclusions of a meeting held in May 2009 by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Entebbe, Uganda, various factors account for this.

Precautionary Approach

Mark W. Rosegrant, director of the IFPRI Environment and Production Technology division, says that one of the major impediments is the precautionary (protective) approach of the regulatory frameworks (the rules and regulations set by national biotechnology committees to guide the use of biotechnology in agriculture). Whereas, according to him, there have been no health problems with foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs), these frameworks are packed with some strong protective measures against them.

"Once GMOs have been approved, things should move, but regulatory frameworks have been more precautionary of promoting the safe use of biotechnology in Africa," Rosegrant said.

"Africa is still missing out to a large extent on GM [genetic modification] technology. This is not a silver bullet but [a tool] that could have great positive impacts, especially with climate change," he added.

According to Rosegrant, the absence of modern scientific platforms for homegrown biotechnology is yet another major impediment in Africa. He believes the developed world should help African nations train scientists and help them acquire the technologies needed for crop biotechnology to enhance improved agricultural production.

The public sector, Rosegrant points out, should be open to the private sector instead of being a barrier. There are too many bureaucratic processes hindering private investments in the development and commercialization of this technology.

Proper information on crop biotechnology has also been lacking. Rosegrant says it is high time for access to copyrighted crop traits to be made available to developing countries, so that their scientists can gain knowledge of the biological makeup of some of the most important crops in the developing world, such as cassava and teff.

Africa can make up for some of the chances lost during the green revolution if African scientists begin to localize engineered plant characteristics and introduce them into traditional crops to fortify them against adverse agricultural conditions, such as drought.

Whereas fellowship programs for African scientists have helped build Africa’s human capacity, many African scientists are left on their own once they leave the Western academic institutions and state-of-the-art laboratories.

Once back home, these scientists face a number of problems, such as the lack of well-equipped laboratories, poor pay packages, and general apathy. "There are fellowship programs in the West, but it is good to help maintain them [African scientists] once back in their countries in terms of salaries, supporting their laboratories, and allowing them to work in close collaboration with the laboratories [in the West] that have advanced scientific platforms."

Lack of Capacity

Robert Paarlberg of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University says that Africa still lacks the capacity of advancement of biotechnology, both human and technological, when compared to India and China:

There are also many hurdles in the way of crop biotechnology [placed] by bodies like the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Global Environment Facility.

Paarlberg explains that the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which sets rules on GMOs, was drafted under great influence from these two bodies, so it did not take into consideration the need for new sciences addressing the rapidly declining agricultural production, especially in the developing world.

He opines that the UNEP emphasizes the protection of the environment and stands in the way of agriculture. "But most GM crops are Maize and Cotton where the use of insecticides is minimal," he explained.

The preventive approach in the rules and guidelines followed by national biosafety committees in Africa hardly supports the difficulties encountered in crop biotechnology. For instance, it takes an agronomist at least a year to get approval for a confined field trial of a cartian variety of seeds. Further, after the field trials, an agronomist cannot obtain permission to sell the seeds in the market. "Kenya has examined GM crops for 10 years but has not approved any. Only Burkina Faso and South Africa have approved GM cotton," Paarlberg said.

The many regulatory requirements determined by several ministries are another cause for concern. "Once the law has been passed, every relevant ministry must have a say, and this leads to delays," he added.

External Influences

Furthermore, Paarlberg argues that there are external factors that act as obstacles to the use of GM: For example, foreign aid from Europe has been a major hindrance as the European Union has a very precautionary regulatory model.

As the majority of African countries were colonized by European countries, "their first point of reference is [still] London or Brussels, and they do not want to keep out of step with the practices coming out of metropolitan Europe," according to Paarlberg.

Paarlberg further explains that many African countries look to European institutions and authorities for technical assistance: "The European Union is not helping build scientific capacity but regulatory capacity that will keep out GMOs, like in Zambia where Norway has helped build a good laboratory for the detection of GMOs."

Aid dependency has also, to a large extent, been a hurdle in the way of GMOs. "The average country in Sub-Saharan Africa is four times as aid-dependent as [any other country in] the rest of the developing world," said Paarlberg.

According to Paarlberg, the UNEP and the Global Environment Facility, under the Global Project for Development of National Biosafety Frameworks, were very reluctant to support GM farming. Nongovernmental organizations such as Greenpeace International are another reason for the failure of adoption of biotechnology in Africa, as they run spirited campaigns on the continent against GMOs.

Those against the new technology argue that the use of GMOs in agriculture could have potential negative effects on the environment and human health, as well as potential socioeconomic effects. The EU, which has adopted a precautionary approach to GMOs, purchases five times more farm commodities from Africa each year than does the US.

"In 2000, private European buyers stopped importing beef from Namibia. In Zambia, in 2002, opposition to accepting GMO maize came from export companies (Agriflora Ltd.) and from export-oriented farmers," Paarlberg said. The farmers are therefore not certain about what will happen if they adopt GM crops.

Margaret Karembu, interim director of AfriCenter at the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, emphasizes that information about biotechnology has not been communicated effectively. "Science communication should make people understand that it contributes to development so that they can appreciate it. It should make people understand research results for informed decisions," she told the meeting attendees.

She added, "Just like any other new development or product, to any society there will be concerns, questions, and myths, and all these can be countered with a proper campaign and promotion. The products of biotechnology science always undergo rigorous scientific testing."

Ochieng’ Ogodo is a Nairobi journalist whose works have been published in various parts of the world including Africa, the US and Europe. He is the English-speaking Africa and Middle East region winner for the 2008 Reuters-IUCN Media Awards for Excellence in Environmental Reporting. He is the chairman of Kenya Environment and Science Journalists Association (Kensja). His biography will be published in the 2009 Edition of the Marque’s Who’s Who in the World. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected]