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New technologies such as genetically modified (GM) crops will be vital in helping Africa achieve sustainable development, according to a report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Harnessing Technologies for Sustainable Development, released to coincide with this week's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, warns that "the greatest risk for Africa is to do nothing, allowing the biotechnology revolution to pass it by".

But the medical and agricultural benefits of biotechnology can only be realised if a number of key challenges — such as minimising risks and making the technologies more relevant to the poor in Africa — are addressed, it says.

"Of particular importance to Africa are the recent advances in biotechnology that promise to produce crop varieties with higher yields, greater resistance to pests and disease, and better nutritional, health, and environmental attributes", it says. The report cites Egypt, South Africa and Kenya as examples of 'success stories' in deploying GM crops.

Biotechnology and genetics are also creating a wide range of new tools that are changing how diseases are diagnosed, managed, and treated, it says. These tools — such as gene therapy, DNA-based vaccines, and novel vaccine delivery systems — could enable African countries to stem the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

However, the report states that biotechnology is not a technological "quick fix" to Africa's hunger and poverty problems, and that critical analysis and careful planning are needed to minimise the risks and realise the full benefits of the technology.

Three main challenges face Africa in harnessing the potential of biotechnology, it says. First, the current focus of biotechnology research is on crops and disease strains that are common in developed, rather than developing, countries.

Second, most African countries are not well equipped to address the potential risks of these technologies to human and animal health.

And third, delivering these innovations to vulnerable individuals and communities — including farmers, people with HIV/AIDS, and those at high risk of malaria and tuberculosis infection — is difficult in poor countries that lack resources and infrastructure.

To overcome these challenges, the report recommends that African countries should promote African-focused biotechnology research on diseases prevalent in Africa, and on 'neglected' crops, such as cassava, millet, sorghum, sweetpotato and yams. It is also vital to increase investment in modern biotechnology research, it says, and to promote regional initiatives and public/private sector partnerships.

'African-owned' biotechnology policies — devised with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders — are also needed, the report states, as well as the establishment of national regulatory institutions for risk assessment and management.

Under the right circumstances, "modern medical and agricultural biotechnology can contribute much to increased food security and better health in African countries by speeding the agricultural productivity and epidemiological transitions in these countries," the report concludes.

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Link to UNECA report: Harnessing Technologies for Sustainable Development

Photo credit: FAO