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Dominic Glover outlines the status of agricultural biotechnology research, development and commercialisation in sub-Saharan Africa.

African agricultural biotechnology research and development efforts are not evenly spread across the continent. While some countries such as South Africa have both institutional and regulatory agri-biotech capacity to rival some more developed nations, others, such as Angola, Botswana and the Gambia have not reported any agricultural biotechnology research and do not yet have fully functioning regulatory systems in place.

Table 1 details agricultural biotechnology projects under way in selected African countries. South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Ghana all have at least six institutes with some capacity to conduct biotechnological research. South Africa and Nigeria have the largest portfolios of biotech research and development projects in Africa.

The great majority of agricultural biotechnology research in Africa is on crop improvement, although not all of this relies on the use of genetically modified (GM) technology. For example, Nigeria is host to over 60 projects exploring non-GM biotechnology — for example, micropropagation of cassava, date palm and ginger.

Country Key institutes with agri-biotech research capacity Biotech research projects/programmes
Total Type of technology Area of application
GMO Non-
GM
Crop

Livestock

Forestry
South Africa

10

92

42

50

58

8

26

Nigeria

7

72

5

67

72

0

0

Kenya

6

36

10

26

31

1

4

Zimbabwe

6

29

2

27

27

2

0

Ghana

6

28

1

27

25

0

3

Uganda

4

25

3

22

21

3

1

Ethiopia

4

22

0

22

9

6

7

Tanzania

4

22

1

21

13

8

1

DR Congo

2

11

0

11

6

1

4

Malawi

4

10

1

9

9

0

1

Namibia

3

2

0

2

2

0

0

Table 1: Biotechnology research projects in selected sub-Saharan African countries [1]

Commercialising GM crops

Several African nations, including Kenya, are moving towards officially releasing GM crops, with individual varieties of maize and cotton, for example, at the field trial stage. But South Africa is the only country in the region that has fully commercialised transgenic crops, namely insect-resistant or herbicide-tolerant varieties of cotton, maize and soybean.

Crop

Trait

IR

HT

IR/HT

Maize (Zea mays)

2

3

4

Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum)

2

1

-

Soybean (Glycine max)

-

2

-

Table 2: GM crop regulatory approvals in South Africa [3]
Key: IR = insect-resistance; HT = herbicide-tolerance; IR/HT = ''stacked'' insect-resistance and herbicide-tolerance traits.

In 2006, South African farmers, including several thousand smallholders, cultivated a total of about 1.4 million hectares of GM crops. [2]

Biosafety regulation

Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe are commonly regarded as Africa's most advanced countries in terms of combining biotechnology research capacity with the necessary policy frameworks and biosafety regulatory systems. [4]

A large number of sub-Saharan African countries are party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety — an international agreement governing the import and export of GM organisms. Most of these have received technical and capacity-building support through the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) to help them set up risk assessment and regulatory systems for managing the trade in GM organisms.

Table 3 gives an overview of the stage of development that national biosafety frameworks in selected African countries have reached. It illustrates the marked difference in capacity between South Africa and other nations on the continent, despite the fact that South Africa is the only country that has not drawn on the support of the UNEP-GEF projects.

Country

Policy

Regulatory framework

Cartagena Protocol

UNEP-GEF biosafety projects

Pilot project

Devt.
project

In
practice

DR Congo

   

 

 

Ethiopia

   

 

 

Ghana

 

Biosafety Bill

Various guidelines

 

 

Kenya

 

Biosafety Guidelines

 

Namibia

 

Draft Biosafety Bill

 

Nigeria

 

Biosafety Guidelines

 

 

South Africa

R&D
Strategy

National
Biotech
Strategy

Biotech
Regional Innovation Centres

GMO Act 1997

GMO Regulations 1997

 

 

 

Uganda

   

 

Tanzania

   

 

 

Zimbabwe

   

 

 

Table 3: Biotechnology and biosafety policy and regulatory frameworks in sub-Saharan Africa [5-7]

 

Projects in Africa, for Africa

A number of high-profile research projects and initiatives have been undertaken, or are currently being set up, across sub-Saharan Africa.

To date, GM crops commercialised in the region have focused on varieties of cotton, maize and soybeans initially developed for farmers in the global North, particularly North America.

But a few efforts have also been made to develop transgenic crops specifically for African farming. These have mostly relied on help from outside the continent, often involving the private sector.

In Kenya, a project supported by Monsanto and the United States Agency for International Development created a virus-resistant variety of sweet potato, although the crop failed in the field. [8]

Scientists at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center — a not-for-profit organisation in St Louis, United States — are working to introduce virus-resistance into a variety of cassava that is a staple crop in much of Africa. While they have succeeded in introducing the trait, it has not yet proved stable over multiple generations. [9]

Research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research are also exploring GM crop traits relevant to African agriculture. For example, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics based in Hyderabad, India and with regional hubs in Nigeria and Kenya is working on transgenic varieties of pigeon pea, groundnut and pearl millet. [10]

The International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement in Mexico coordinates the Insect Resistant Maize for Africa project in collaboration with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) and with the support of the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture. [11]

Meanwhile, the first GM crop plant developed entirely in Africa — a virus-resistant variety of maize created by scientists at the University of Cape Town, South Africa — is scheduled to begin field trials in late 2007. [12]

One of the most prominent non-GM biotechnology projects in Africa is KARI's ongoing work to produce tissue-cultured banana plantlets and disseminate them to farmers across East Africa.

Box 1: Public sector GM crop research

Researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have examined the status of biotechnology research and development in public-sector institutions in three sub-Saharan African countries, among other nations, up to 2003. [13-14]

They documented work carried out by five institutions in South Africa, four in Zimbabwe and one in Kenya and found 37 individual instances ('events') of successful crop transformations: 20 in South Africa, five in Zimbabwe and four in Kenya.

Scientists in all three countries were found to be working on maize and sweet potatoes. In Kenya, researchers are also looking at cotton, while in Zimbabwe they are concentrating on cotton, cowpeas and tomatoes. In South Africa researchers are working on a dozen or so crops including pearl millet, potatoes, sorghum, soybeans, tomatoes, sugar cane and indigenous vegetables.

Across the study as a whole, a little more than half of the events identified were for virus resistance or insect resistance. The remainder encompassed improved agronomic properties, fungal resistance, improved product quality, herbicide tolerance or bacterial resistance.

South African research spanned all seven of these 'phenotypic traits', whereas research in Zimbabwe and Kenya covered a narrower range dominated by virus resistance and herbicide tolerance. Only in South Africa have any of the resultant GM crop varieties — cotton, maize and soybeans — been commercialised.

In all three countries examined by IFPRI, partnerships with the private sector contributed to some, if not all, the events achieved. Such partnerships included working with multinational companies or, occasionally, local seed companies. South Africa's public research institutes achieved the majority of their transformation events (21 out of 28) independently, but in Zimbabwe only three out of the five events were achieved independently and in Kenya none of them were. Across all three countries, 85 per cent of the genetic resources used originated in the local public sector rather than private or foreign sources.

Further information

Further information and statistical indicators on agricultural research programmes, institutions and policy frameworks for sub-Saharan African (and other) countries can be obtained from the following websites:

The Biosafety Clearing House (BCH)
The BCH is a central depository where parties to the Cartagena Protocol log information about national policy and regulatory frameworks, research institutes, projects and programmes, GM crop approvals and other information.

Biosafety Information Network and Advisory Service (BINAS)
BINAS provides information about national biosafety frameworks and regulations. The website is currently offline for reconstruction (May 2007).

AGBIOS GM database
The AGBIOS database provides information about GM crop approvals around the world, including South Africa.

Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI)
ASTI provides statistics and other information on agricultural research, including country profiles and time series data for a wide range of nations including most of those in sub-Saharan Africa. It links to relevant publications and other resources from the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Agricultural Research Organisations on the Web (AROW)
AROW links to key agricultural research organisations around the world.

Web-based Information Services for Agricultural Research for Development (WISARD)
WISARD is a database of research projects and programmes in agriculture, as well as experts, organisations and outputs.

References

[1] FAO Biotechnologies in Developing Countries http://www.fao.org/biotech/inventory_admin/dep/default.asp
[2] James, C. Global status of commercialized biotech/GM crops: 2006. ISAAA Brief 35 (2006) http://www.isaaa.org/Resources/publications/briefs/default.html
[3] AgBios GM Database http://www.agbios.com/dbase.php
[4] Sithole-Niang, I., Cohen, J., Zambrano, P. Putting GM technologies to work: public research pipelines in selected African countries. African Journal of Biotechnology 3, (2004)
[5] Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety http://www.cbd.int/biosafety/signinglist.shtml
[6] UNEP-GEF Biosafety Projects http://www.unep.ch/biosafety/parcountrieslist.htm
[7] Biosafety Clearing House http://bch.biodiv.org
[8] Monsanto Failure New Scientist 181, 7 February (2004)
[9] Danforth Center Cassava Update (2006) http://www.danforthcenter.org/newsmedia/NewsDetail.asp?nid=119
[10] International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics http://www.icrisat.org/
[11] Biotechnology IRMA project http://www.cimmyt.org/ABC/InvestIn-InsectResist/htm/
InvestIn-InsectResist.htm

[12] Sinha, G. GM technology develops in the developing world. Science 315, 182-183 (2007) www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/315/5809/182
[13] Atanassov, A., Bahieldin, A., Brink, J. et al. To reach the poor — results from the ISNAR–IFPRI Next Harvest study on genetically modified crops, public research, and policy implications. EPTD Discussion Paper 116, Washington, DC: IFPRI (2004) http://www.ifpri.org/divs/eptd/dp/papers/eptdp116.pdf 
[14] Cohen, J.I. Poorer nations turn to publicly developed GM crops. Nature Biotechnology, 23, 27-33 (2005) http://www.ifpri.org/media/biotech20050106.htm

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