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With the right investment, Africa could get real benefits from growing the latest GM crops, says Idah Sithole-Niang.

Growing pharmaceuticals and industrial products in plants through genetic engineering presents an important opportunity that Africa should grasp now.

Such crops include plants engineered to produce biodegradable plastics, fibrous proteins, adhesives and synthetic proteins. For example, tobacco and potato plants have been engineered to produce spider silks.

'Pharmacrops' are plants genetically modified to produce pharmaceuticals, for example vaccines, antibodies and proteins to treat human or animal diseases. Maize engineered to express human gastric lipase, used to treat cystic fibrosis, is already in advanced clinical trials.

So Africa must move quickly to get ahead and realise the real economic gains these 'third generation' genetically modified (GM) crops offer. This will mean building regulatory capacity and investing in key products. But perhaps most importantly, all African countries must ensure public support for the technology.

Various fungal, bacterial and transgenic animal systems already exist to produce third generation GM products, but plant systems have the greatest potential for economic benefits. They offer low production costs, improved safety, purity, ease of storage and consistent and scalable production — all of which can be exploited to meet diverse demands and applications.

Changing attitudes

Although 'third generation' crops are only grown on small scales, their 'first generation' counterparts (plants modified to improve the original crop) are rapidly being adopted across the world. But sub-Saharan Africa has been slow to take them up, apart from South Africa, where poor farmers grow pest-resistant Bt cotton.

Fears about food safety, environmental safety, and loss of overseas sales have hindered GM crops. But studies show such fears are largely unfounded. For example, in 2004, the Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that there was no evidence anywhere in the world that GM foods were toxic or harmed nutrition.

Attitudes to GM crops may now be changing, as policymakers recognise that science, technology and innovation can drive economic development. For example, the African Union now has both a High Level Panel on Biotechnology and a fund to support research and development. This is a resounding acknowledgement that African economies should, in part, be bio-economies.

Once African governments accept that biotechnology can boost their economies, they will be more willing to finance local research to address local problems out of their own national budgets. Researchers and industry should take full advantage of these changing attitudes to secure investment in research and technologies for producing plant-made pharmaceuticals and industrial products.

Tackling safety concerns

Cultivating third generation crops commercially can raise legitimate biosafety concerns.

Using food crops, such as maize, can provoke fears of the health risks if such crops entered food or animal feed supplies. Cross-contamination has already occurred in the United States. In 2002 inspectors from the US Department for Agriculture found 550 000 bushels of soybean were contaminated with maize genetically engineered to produce a vaccine for pigs. The maize had not been completely removed after an earlier GM crop. Such instances fuel worries that regulators will not — or cannot — effectively segregating food and pharmacrops.

But this is not sufficient reason to abandon the technology altogether. Rather, regulators must improve biosafety and mitigate such risks. They will need comprehensive biosafety regulations on transporting and trading GM crops now being developed across most of Africa (see Harmonising biosafety regulations within Africa) — as well as measures to minimise contamination and gene flow during production.

These include cultivation in high security greenhouses, isolation distances increased beyond current recommendations, strict monitoring and good record keeping. Such measures suit sparsely populated areas of Africa, where third generation GM crops can be more easily kept apart from food crops.

Effective segregation will inevitably increase production costs, but the economic gains of supplying global markets for pharmaceutical and industrial products will vastly outweigh these.

Other ways of improving the biosafety of third generation GM crops include knowing the biology of the crop, taking advantage of flowering times and using sterile host plants. Genetic modifications can also use genes expressed in the chloroplast. This minimises gene flow as chloroplasts are maternally inherited and has the added advantage of increasing yields.

The right crops for Africa

First generation GM crops have largely been a response to demand in temperate zones. The future is still open for third generation GM crops. Africa needs to act now to become a key player while this technology is still being developed.

Individual African countries must concentrate their efforts on crops relevant to their own environments and needs — for example cassava, cowpea, banana, millet or yams.

Africa needs an integrated approach, pooling scientific expertise and resources. The common goal is to identify key pharmaceutical and industrial products, develop appropriate crops, and use combined capacity to regulate production and distribution.

Public support is crucial

Perhaps most importantly, all African countries must engage public support for third generation GM crops. Raising awareness and educating the public must be made as much of a priority as developing the technology itself.

The first step is convincing policy and decision makers of the potential social and economic benefits. Study tours organised specifically for such people are already having a huge effect on the acceptance of the technology, but it is public acceptance that will carry the day.

Idah Sithole-Niang is a professor in the department of biochemistry at the University of Zimbabwe.