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The 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States have agreed to use biotechnology to increase food production in the region.

Ministers of agriculture, environment, science and technology met to discuss the issues surrounding biotechnology in agriculture at a meeting held last week (28–30 March) in Accra, Ghana.

They adopted a regional action plan for biotechnology development for 2006–2010, which stresses the use of public-private partnerships to increase investment in biotechnology, and the need to put safety measures in place at national and regional levels.

The plan calls for a network of biotechnology experts to be established, and the promotion of networking between centres of excellence in biotechnology and the West and Central African Biosciences facility planned by the New Partnership for African Development.

The ministers also agreed to set up an independent fund for assessing the socio-economic impacts of using genetically modified (GM) organisms.

A regional policy for managing intellectual property rights to help with the acquisition, development and distribution of biotechnology knowledge and new technologies will also be developed.

But the meeting drew criticism from non-governmental organisations, scientists, farmers and consumer groups who met at a parallel meeting to criticise the 'biotech industry interference' in the process, and the lack of provision for GM-free zones.

However scientists contacted by SciDev.Net welcomed the plan.

Baboucarr Manneh, a Gambian researcher at the biotechnology unit of the Africa Rice Center in Benin, said it has the potential to improve agricultural productivity in West Africa.

He pointed to a number of biotechnology applications needed in West African countries, such as the use of antibodies and biopesticides against crop, animal and human diseases.

Manneh indicated the necessity of producing disease-free plants such as bananas, cassava and fruit trees, and plants resistant to environmental stresses.

He also highlighted the importance of improving the nutritional qualities of existing crop varieties and animal breeds.

To address public fears about biotechnology, the ministers agreed to establish a network of national information and communication units responsible for raising public awareness of biotechnology.

The Economic Community of West African States includes Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.