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Africa needs a centralised body to help it overcome the lack of scientific capacity and expertise in regulating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), says a study.
The disarray of national policies, which are often poorly functioning or lacking in scientific expertise to implement them, means that a pan-African approach to GMO risk analysis and biosafety regulation is needed, according to the study to be published in next month’s issue of Food Policy.
A lack of consensus on how to regulate GMOs in Africa partly explains why the technology has yet to significantly improve food security there — despite its introduction almost two decades ago, the study says.
“There is a lack of agreement on how to develop, regulate and use GMOs in Africa, and that’s one of the problems affecting their development,” Ademola Adenle, the paper’s lead author and a research fellow at the UN University in Japan, tells SciDev.Net. “A centralised approach is needed, whereby the member countries have an agreement as to what is important, and what needs to be done before GMOs are released.”
The study examined the views of more than 300 stakeholders on the role of GMOs in agricultural development. These included research institutes, companies, government ministries and international bodies, in six African countries.
“A centralised approach is needed, whereby the member countries have an agreement as to what is important, and what needs to be done before GMOs are released.”
Ademola Adenle, UN University
Adenle says the study is the largest and most comprehensive one on the issue yet conducted in Africa, revealing a diverse range of challenges in developing effective biosafety regulatory frameworks across the continent.
It found, for example, that Egypt and Tunisia suffer from a lack of biosafety laws with no risk assessments of GMOs in Egypt, despite its current cultivation of pest-resistant Bt maize.
Approval of Kenya’s biosafety laws is underway, with commercial production of pest-resistant Bt cotton due in 2014, however, the country faces challenges relating to the politicisation of the biosafety debate, with strong anti-GMO campaigns, and politicians using those views to gain popularity.
And in West Africa, biosafety laws have been approved in Ghana, and are waiting approval in Nigeria, but there is limited local scientific expertise for risk analysis of GMOs undergoing field trials.
To overcome these challenges, the study says that Africa could adopt a shared and centralised approach, similar to that used to assess risk in the European Union (EU) by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
A centralised approach could help by harmonising existing biosafety policies with new ones to strengthen GMO regulation across Africa, Adenle says. The approach could help ensure that GM products do not harm health or the environment.
Adenle says such a body could initially be hosted by South Africa as its regulatory capacity is equivalent to that of the EU. It could then gradually extend to a few other nations such as Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria, which are leaders in biotechnology research and development in Africa.
Adenle adds that the new body would take a similar approach to that adopted in the EU, but that Africa’s weak infrastructure and lack of human capital mean that the continent would be more likely to adapt a body like the EFSA than to replicate it.
Kristin Wedding and Johanna Nesseth Tuttle, co-authors of a report on GMOs in Africa published last month by think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, say the study fills large gaps in the understanding of African stakeholders’ views.
Harmonising policies would be beneficial, for example by helping to open up a bigger market for companies, says Nesseth Tuttle.
Another benefit, according to Wedding, would be allowing countries that lack scientific capacity to rely on risk assessments done by a regional body “instead of reinventing the wheel by conducting the same resource-intensive evaluations on a country-by-country basis”.
But they highlight that adopting a centralised regulatory approach can be challenging.
Signing up to a regional policy may also result in local wishes and priorities clashing with those of other nations and the regional body, they say.
“The harmonisation of regulatory approaches is hard,” says Nesseth Tuttle. “It’s a lot of negotiation and give and take.”
> Link to abstract of study in Food Policy
Food Policy doi: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2013.09.006 (2013)