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Africa needs harmonised biosafety policies that respect sovereignty and pool resources, says David Wafula.


Africa needs to harmonise its biosafety policies in order to preserve free trade within the continent. A number of initiatives have already been launched, for example the African Union is developing an African Strategy on Biosafety.

Similarly, agricultural ministers within the continent's largest trading bloc, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), have endorsed a Regional Approach to Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (RABESA).

To develop harmonised policies, RABESA will need to be a broad-based platform where policymakers, scientists, the private sector and society can interact and consult each other. RABESA will tackle the issues that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raise for trade and access to emergency food aid.

Regional rules, national sovereignty

Economic communities in Africa, such as COMESA, the East African Community and the Southern Africa Development Community, want to integrate regional trade and create free trade areas.

Differences in national biosafety policies can hamper the cross-border movement of essential commodities. Already, a technological divide is emerging between countries like Egypt and Kenya, which are drawing closer to commercialising GMOs, and the majority of other African nations, including Ethiopia and Zambia, which are taking a preventive or precautionary stance.

The problem is especially important for maize and cotton within the COMESA region, where trade in these commodities is particularly high. Kenya is already developing GM varieties of both commodities.

Commercial releases of either could easily spread much further than intended in the region. For example, formal or informal trade, seed exchanges or unintentional movements could easily transport GMOs planted in Kenya into neighbouring countries that have not approved their use, such as Tanzania or Uganda.

Trade within the COMESA region has risen by over 300 per cent in the past six years (from US$2 billion in 2000 to US$6 billion in 2006). Piecemeal approval for commercial GM crops in COMESA is likely to reduce the value and volume of this trade, unless all countries in the bloc agree to a set of clear biosafety measures that can be implemented across the region.

Reaching such an agreement requires consultation, negotiation and consensus-building across all member states. National sovereignty must be acknowledged, and individual countries' priorities met.

There must be clear distinctions between regulations that can be enforced at a regional level and decisions that need to be taken by national governments. For example, there should be regional guidelines for transporting and handling GM products, but the decision on whether to import GM products — or accept emergency food aid containing GMOs — remains with each government.

RABESA — a participatory approach

COMESA's regional initiative, RABESA, is a participatory approach to harmonising biosafety regulations. A panel of experts from across the region will draft regional guidelines on introducing, trading and handling GM crops and emergency food aid containing GMOs. This should encourage a sense of ownership and acceptance of such regulations within the region.

To ensure inclusiveness, the COMESA secretariat will convene regional and national consensus-building meetings. At these, policymakers, technical experts and other stakeholders from COMESA member states will discuss the policies and regulations proposed by the panel.

Some of COMESA's member states also belong to other African trading blocs. So RABESA must ensure its policies and procedures converge with those of such other organisations, minimising potential conflict.

It is also crucial to keep each country's minister for agriculture well informed, enhancing their understanding of biosafety issues. This is essential for mobilising the political support needed to get guidelines endorsed at the regional level.

Clubbing together

Even if regional guidelines are agreed, the cost of regulating and testing biotechnology products is relatively high, and many African countries lack the infrastructure, resources or capacity to implement them.

The International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council estimates that the cost of sampling and testing cargo for GMOs would be US$1 million. If exporters are required to quantify individual varieties, the labelling and testing costs for maize alone would be four times more.

So projects aiming to harmonise biosafety regulations should consider using centralised resources. These would need financial support. For COMESA, that could be a regional biosafety fund that each member state contributes to, with complementary support from institutions such as the African Union and donor agencies.

RABESA proposes using regional centres of excellence and a central biosafety clearing house. These would allow countries with weak or underdeveloped capacity access to cutting-edge research and development facilities, boosting the exchange of scientific and technical information on GMOs.

David Wafula is a research fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi, Kenya and regional coordinator of the RABESA project.