Africa’s concern is influenced by Europe’s position on GMOs – Makinde

DIRAN MAKINDE-1Diran Makinde is of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Agency African Biosafety Network of Expertise, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. He spoke with Abdallah el-Kurebe on Crop Biotechnology and Its Regulation in Africa during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. Excerpts:

At this time when world population growth is threatening food security and countries are adopting biotechnology to boost food production, many countries in Africa are still adamant, especially on biosafety frameworks. What is NEPAD doing to help African countries to develop systems?

The quest for effective mechanisms to regulate modern biotechnology has elicited policy responses at various levels the world over, with the main multilateral framework being the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. African countries are at various stages towards developing and implementing domestic frameworks that comply with this Protocol. In addition, several efforts have been made towards regional cooperation in biosafety. NEPAD Agency’s African Network of Biosafety Expertise (ABNE) has in the last few years been at the forefront of efforts to help African countries develop and implement biosafety systems that will ensure that the technology plays a key role in multi-faceted efforts towards the continent’s socio-economic self-sufficiency. Like elsewhere in the world, African countries have engaged in the debate on the pros and cons of modern biotechnologies and products thereof for a greater part of the last two decades. Efforts to develop and implement regulatory systems have also been on-going across the continent for the same length of time, with varying levels of success across countries and regions for the desired policy change. The debate and policy trajectories have incessantly been altered both in content and nature by a number of internal and external factors, not least the developments unravelled by conclusion and implementation of the provisions the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. Africa’s geographical and socio-economic peculiarities also shape the content and nature of the debates, and their outcomes. Key among these peculiarities are: the economic and social importance of agriculture in Africa; the degree of food insecurity and poverty on the continent; the pressures exerted on natural resources by the continent’s population as they endeavour to satisfy food and nutritional needs; the vulnerable nature of Africa’s agriculture due to climate change, diseases and predators; the need to explore new ways of developing agriculture to overcome food insecurity and alleviate poverty; and all this while needing to protect biodiversity, the environment and human and animal health. This raises both the importance of biotechnology in the development of Africa’s agriculture economic development, as well as the need for effective regulatory mechanisms to ensure maximisation of benefits and minimisation of risks.

You have been working with African governments, especially on development. What in your view is the attitude of African leaders with regard to absolute commitment to fight food insecurity?

Well you see, in a quest to reduce hunger, food insecurity and poverty through agriculture, African governments agreed to increase public investment in agriculture by committing a minimum of 10 per cent of their national budgets to agriculture with the aim of raising agricultural productivity by at least 6 per cent by 2015. , a mixture of both conventional and biotechnological approaches . Unfortunately, the adoption of agricultural biotechnology in Africa has been slow due to lack of adequate capacity, political support and/or political will, access to proprietary technologies, scientific uncertainties, resources and activism. Despite all these, African countries are making steady progress towards developing and implementing domestic frameworks that comply with the main multilateral framework, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB) (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity, 2000). This notwithstanding, there are still some inherent weaknesses in these domestic frameworks even for the countries that have had these regulations in the very earlier stages like Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritius, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, etc., which makes it difficult to enforce. Sometimes, this is aggravated by the lack of sufficient coordination between implementing institutions. Much of the early push for the development of biosafety regulations in Africa came through the UNEP-GEF project amid concerns that developing countries would become testing grounds for novel and potentially risky substances that they had neither the capacity nor the regulatory frameworks to handle. Although African policy makers expressed these concerns over GMOs, it wasn’t until the Southern Africa countries faced food aid crisis in 2002 that these concerns metamorphosed into a public phobia for GMOs in Africa. These concerns by African policy makers were partially influenced by Europe’s position on GMOs, as well as a mistrust of the motives of multinational seed companies. Eventually, the ensuing biosafety frameworks and legislations reflected these sentiments and were overtly restrictive, for example, the Biosafety Act of Zambia (Government of Zambia, 2007) and the Biosafety Proclamation of Ethiopia (Government of Ethiopia, 2009). There were however, other factors at play in some other African countries. For instance, Burkina Faso wanted to facilitate the local introduction of GM cotton to revive its flagging economy, which was a main driver for their biosafety legislation.

African countries to develop biosafety frameworks?

Funding has been made available for capacity-building from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for developing countries to draft National Biosafety Framework (NBF) documents after the CPB entered into force in 2003. This was an important driver of the process in Africa even though a number of these countries at that time had little knowledge of, or interest in, biotechnology or biosafety. As discussed in the GEF evaluation report (GEF, 2006), the CPB does not prescribe the immediate need for comprehensive legislation. The availability of these frameworks or legislations did not however necessarily translate into functionality. For countries in Africa to have a functional biosafety regulatory system, the passing of a Biosafety Bill or the modification of existing legislation to comply with international provisions is just the beginning of a long process. It requires capacity building at many levels. This is necessary to build on the progress made by many countries and to ensure a full implementation of the NBFs developed under the UNEP-GEF program.

What is the specific role of the ABNE in the context of biosafety regulations?

The ABNE was conceived under the auspices of the NEPAD Agency by African leaders to build the capacity of African regulators to ensure functional biosafety systems within the member states of the African Union. It is in existence to facilitate development of synergies between national, regional & international biosafety actors operating on the African continent and the wider socio-economic development targets and aspirations of countries. This should see biosafety frameworks and the technology taking their proper place as key components of national systems of innovation and key tools, not adversaries, in national development agendas. Now, more countries have developed their guidelines and biosafety laws either for commercialization or conducting confined field trials for some indigenous African commodities. Some of the components of a functional biosafety regulatory system include: (a) National Policy, which is required to frame a country’s unified approach to biotechnology and biosafety. However, there are some conflicting positions taken by different government ministries leading to regulatory decision making delays and or poor decision making. (b) Legislation: According to Global Environmental Facility, 2006 “Inexpertly drafted legislation that …creates insufficient or legally uncertain permits and processes, for example – may deter external investors and importers from future attempts to act within the country.” (c) Administrative arrangements for which there is a need for a central point where reports are received and evaluated, and where monitoring processes are undertaken to ensure adherence to permit requirements. Competent administrative bodies with adequate funding for processing applications and clear mandates are needed. Others include, Scientific Risk Assessment where independent scientific experts knowledgeable in risk assessment that will serve in an advisory capacity and not involved in decision-making are needed. There is a poor critical mass for this in most of the AU member states. (e) Extension services: In many developing countries the extension system is unfortunately weak or non-existing and for a new technology they need to be trained in all aspects of the application of GE technology in order to ensure that farmers apply it to best effect. (f) Inspectors: These government employees play a vital role in monitoring, inspection and compliance and need to be appropriately trained to know what to look for; and (g) Trained farmers: because farmers are to gain maximum benefit from GM seeds, they must also implement good farming practices. Farmers need to understand the reasoning behind non-use of saved seeds, the biosafety requirements such as the need to plant non-transgenic ‘refugia’ around pesticide-resistant crops to prevent the emergence of pesticide- resistant insects, etc.

How then could the regulatory systems be enhanced in Africa?

To enhance the regulatory systems in Africa the following have been suggested: availability and sustainability of financial resources to the regulatory systems; the need for integration of multiple actors with multiple agendas; access to credit by farmers to buy GE seed; Control of informal seed trade and possible breach of intellectual property rights; capacity to enforce regulations; capacity for inspection and monitoring; increase public awareness; access to accurate information on biotech/biosafety; adequate infrastructure; timely and adequate seed supply; nascent public-private sector partnerships and improved linkages in public-private partnerships.

What effect has politics to the issue of GMOs, especially in Africa?

The political dimension of GMOs was and still is the outstanding problem on GE regulation worldwide. In Africa, the lack of political will for GE technology widely observed in most countries is mainly attributed to Africa’s policy-making elites who prefer the European-style regulations for GE crops. The early adopter countries warmed up to GE technology and later there were elements of ‘backsliding’ due to the mis- information and the pressure exerted by activists; such as the recent Kenya government decisions on GE import ban and the labelling regulations. We have also found that elections can be a challenge and an opportunity.

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