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The "toxically polarised" debate in the developed world about genetically modified (GM) crops could stifle the potential of biotechnology to benefit the poor, particularly in Africa, Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation said today (12 March).

"Becoming enmeshed in the arguments over GM foods that rage in the developed countries … is not what Africa needs now," said Conway in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, United States.

Conway explained that the first green revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which brought India close to agricultural self-sufficiency, largely passed by Africa. He spoke of the need to balance social and environmental concerns with implementing new technologies, an approach he calls the 'doubly' green revolution.

As well as good governance and wise policies, involvement of the private sector will be crucial to this new revolution, Conway said. "We no longer believe that governments alone can accomplish what needs to be done … the private sector is needed, including non-academic scientists, corporations, and business people."

Such public-private partnerships have the advantage of combining "public purpose" with "private entrepreneurship". But Conway acknowledges that stronger institutions are required to develop successful relationships.

A new initiative being spearheaded by the Rockefeller Foundation, known as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), aims to play precisely this role. The AATF — which will be officially launched in September in Nairobi, Kenya — will be a broker of public-private partnerships, and will act as a focal point for materials and information on technologies.

On the subject of biotechnology, Conway said it would be "irresponsible" if African countries were not helped to take advantage of the capabilities of new techniques and products made possible by biotechnology, including GM crops.

He stressed the importance of African countries having the experience and scientific capacity to make informed decisions about GM food, and highlighted the recent crisis over GM food aid in southern Africa as another "compelling reason" why the capacity to understand and handle biotech must be developed widely.

This is particularly true in terms of assessing the safety of GM crops, he said, given that most African countries do not have the necessary testing and regulatory systems. On this issue, Conway criticised the United States for "sitting on the sidelines" of the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol — the international convention adopted in 2000 to protect biological diversity from the potential risks of GM organisms.

According to Conway, three factors are required for African countries to decide whether to take up GM crops: a strong scientific community, policies that encourage advanced research and regulatory systems, and a better understanding of the complexities of biotechnology.

Conway said that in many ways intellectual property rights (IPRs) are the "greatest barrier" to his vision of a new green revolution, owing to a trend towards exclusive private control of agricultural discoveries, and a shift in academic research away from public objectives.

While he acknowledged the need for regulation of new technologies, Conway said that the way IPRs operate in connection with poor countries needs to be adjusted, and labelled the situation as a "complicated tragedy".

© SciDev.Net 2003

Link to full text of Gordon Conway's speech

Related external links:

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Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety

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