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Maryke Steffens reports on the influences behind Africa's diverse attitudes to transgenic crops, and the need for a unified agenda.

Africa embraces a range of attitudes towards agricultural biotechnology, particularly transgenic crops. While genetically modified (GM) crops are commercially farmed in South Africa, an informal ban is in place in Zambia.

Biotechnology promises to solve many of Africa's problems, including an insecure food supply from a dry, harsh and unpredictable land. But the African Union (AU) believes that if Africa is to pursue biotechnology's promise it is going to have to do so as a cohesive whole.

Too many outsiders are pushing biotechnology agendas in Africa, says John Mugabe, science and technology advisor to the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

 

Mugabe believes that foreign interests, imposed on Africa, are creating a continent with no clear strategy.

He says the time has come for Africa to take back control of its biotech future.

 

Risk assessment

David Duthie, from the biosafety unit at the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), says the problem is that many countries are confused about how to approach GM.

"African countries are really struggling with this," says Duthie. "They don't have access to [scientific] literature, they don't have scientific and technical elites to talk about the subjects. But they do have a lot of newspapers and a lot of media."

The chief concern of many countries is the safety of the environment and people's health. In accordance with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, UNEP has been setting up procedures to help sub-Saharan African countries decide whether or not to import GM crops.

A researcher in a Ugandan
cassava field
Credit: USAID/M McGahuey

Cameroon, Kenya, Namibia and Uganda are working with UNEP to make their biosafety policies operational, while almost all other African states plan to have draft policies by December 2007, when the UNEP project is scheduled to end.

According to Duthie, UNEP has stayed clear of the pro- versus anti-GM fray.

"As a UN agency, we take a policy-neutral approach. We don't prescribe any particular policy or approach to safe use of modern biotechnology."

Caught between transatlantic differences

How a country defines 'safe' in the context of biotechnology forms the cornerstone of the debate. Germany and the United States — both actively implementing biosafety policy and research programmes in Africa — are in disagreement.

In the United States a transgenic product is considered to pose no new health risks if it can be assessed as 'substantially equivalent' to its unmodified counterpart.

But in Germany, which had led the formation of EU policy in Europe, the 'precautionary principle' is used. In the face of uncertainty, a defensive approach is taken even when causal links have not been scientifically established.

"From the EU standpoint, there is this question of 'what if?'" says José Falck-Zepeda, a research fellow at the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

Falck-Zepeda says there is no clear endpoint in that decision making process, whereas the United States is willing to live with a system that considers "safety as a matter of degree".

There are nations in Africa willing to live with this system too. The US-funded Program for Biosafety Systems has trained scientists in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda to run field trials for GM crops in line with its own approach to biosafety.

Germany has directed its efforts toward persuading the AU, rather than individual countries, to adopt new biosafety regulations. Though the AU has no authority over its member states, it advises them on biosafety regulations.

Germany has, for example, funded an AU biosafety project, now in its second year, that focuses on building an Africa-wide biological safety system where member states are guided by a regional model law — the African Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology.

The proposed law, which some say derives from the idea that the Cartagena Protocol cannot sufficiently safeguard human health and the environment in an African context, is conservative in its approach to biosafety. It puts the onus on exporting countries to pay compensation if any harm or loss of livelihood occurs as a result of introducing GM products.

A combined approach

Although a great deal of money has been invested in Africa through these projects, some think African nations have not benefited as much as they should have.

"The different projects may have resulted in more fragmentation," says Julius Mugwagwa, a researcher from the UK-based Open University and a former biotechnologist at the Biotechnology Trust of Zimbabwe, where he assisted in setting up a regional initiative (RAEIN-Africa) implementing a Southern African biosafety and environment programme from Namibia.

The Freedom to Innovate report, jointly published by NEPAD and the AU and put together by the High-Level African Panel on Modern Biotechnology, tries to reconcile these competing interests.

NEPAD's John Mugabe says it is about Africa taking back control of biotechnology and expanding scientific capacity — laboratories, scientists, field trials — beyond biosafety frameworks.

The report involved an all-African panel of experts, including Calestous Juma from Harvard University, the director general of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority Tewolde Egziabher and representatives from the German-funded AU biosafety project, as well as scientists and representatives of nongovernmental organisations. They were charged with charting a strategy based on consensus.

Ismail Serageldin, director of the Library of Alexandria and co-chair of the panel, says the report offers "an alternative way forward from the paralysis that has characterised much of the work in Africa".

According to co-chair Calestous Juma, it is about developing long-term strategies that will give biotechnology efforts "a more pragmatic focus".

The Freedom to Innovate report emphasises the need for countries across Africa to unify their approach to biotechnology and regulation of risk.

Julius Mugwagwa says if countries don't work collaboratively as regional economic communities they will lose out.

He says regions want to be seen as one big market, so that investors won't have any problems with different systems in different countries. According to Mugwagwa, there will be economic losses if they don't harmonise.

He says the report reflects the continent's current enthusiasm for science, technology and innovation to "propel economies to a greater level".

But, he adds, whether this can be translated from an expert-driven report into sustained action at the implementation level is another question.

"A critical issue is how prepared are the regional economic communities at the policy, infrastructural, human resources and other levels to handle these responsibilities?"

Mugwagwa also questions the potential commitment of individual countries to the Freedom to Innovate report, especially those without the technical or policy capacity to contribute to regional biotechnology activities.

 

Some countries have been reluctant to let go of their sovereignty, but this may be changing. In March, West African states adopted a regional five-year plan of action for increasing food production through biotechnology.

Saving the orphans

The risk associated with incompatible biosafety requirements across the continent goes far beyond economic loss.

Small public-sector projects aimed at developing 'orphan' crops such as sorghum, cassava and pigeon pea — largely ignored by big biotechnology companies — may struggle to move forward through the sheer number of regulatory hurdles. These projects' limited financial resources would stretch further under one common testing and approval process.

Supporting these projects is vital, according to Frank Shotkoski from USAID (US Agency for International Development) who is currently involved in a Ugandan project on transgenic pest-resistant bananas.

Although agricultural biotechnology can't be a "silver bullet" solution for Africa, he believes it has "the potential to do more to bring Africa up to speed on the ability to produce food for its people than any other technology out there".

Field trials

Several countries in sub-Saharan Africa are already running or planning GM field trials of both orphan and commercial crops.

Nigerian farmers and their crops
Credit: USAID/A Fleuret

Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda are preparing for trials with Bt cotton — engineered to carry the insect-killing Bt toxin. Kenya is pursuing transgenic maize, sweet potato and cassava. Nigeria is looking into Bt cowpea, and virus-resistant cassava is in the pipeline in Nigeria and Uganda.

There are other projects planned. The Harvest Plus project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, is fighting malnutrition with GM technology by fortifying the nutrient content of key crops such as sorghum, banana and cassava.

If Africa can forge a common path to protecting itself from any unseen consequences of GM technology without smothering innovation, it could find a pot of gold at the end of the transgenic rainbow.

According to Ismail Serageldin, Africa must look to the success stories and get inspiration. "These should not be the exception and they can be the norm," he says.

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