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Africa's GM crop debate

GMO Safety speaks with Diran Makinde of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise in Burkina Faso and with Arthur Makara of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development in Uganda

GM, crops, debate, Burkina Faso, Uganda, GMO, Africa, African, farmingGMO Safety speaks with Diran Makinde of the African Biosafety Network of Expertise in Burkina Faso and with Arthur Makara of the Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development in Uganda.

 

GMO Safety: Why have GM crops been introduced so far in only so few African countries?

Makinde: Africa is lagging behind in the adoption of GM crops because the technology lacks regulatory oversight. There are few biosafety laws and governments are not able or willing to proceed. Also, there is a lack of credible information and of expertise in the technology. Half-truths and misinformation created by activists also play a negative role.

Makara: The main reason for the slow uptake of GM crops in Africa is the strict regulation in Europe because a lot of African countries have strong ties with Europe, especially the UK. There are also trade relations. So the opinion in Europe highly influences events in this part of the world; African governments and the public follow the opinion in Europe.

GMO Safety: In the end, the slow process so far is a problem of public opposition or a regulatory issue?

Makinde: The problem is a combination of both, but to a greater extent of regulation. The public is unaware of the various efforts at regulating the products. If they were aware, there could be better reception of the technology. On the other hand, regulatory frameworks take a long time to be established since they have to undergo careful study by experts from the various government agencies. Some of the national frameworks are still unworkable and unenforceable; the private sector shuns countries with “unfriendly” frameworks. Lacking the capacities to carry out regulatory assessments also is a problem. The dossiers are too technical and voluminous for the untrained; it is a challenge to explain them to decision-makers.

Makara: Some countries already have working regulations in place to cover GM crops; others operate under interim regulatory frameworks. For instance, Uganda has a policy on biotechnology that empowers the country to go ahead with research and development of GM crops, although the final law is not yet approved. Uganda is similar to some other countries in having the structures and the capacity to carry out research on GM crops and to regulate them, but others have neither this capacity nor arrangements for risk assessment. Countries remain at different levels. Therefore, regional collaboration on biosafety, like in COMESA (Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa), is a great move.


GMO Safety: What are the advantages of such collaboration?

Makara: When commercialisation of GM crops takes place, a joint assessment will help handle trans-border movements of these crops. In this case, it is central that capacity constraints of individual countries pose no hindrance and that COMESA can help all countries move forward at the same speed. In any case, the final decision with regard to the commercialisation of GM crops remains within each country.

Makinde: Biosafety harmonisation is currently not only going on in the COMESA but also in the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). In fact the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) started the process of harmonisation before other regional economic communities came on board. Harmonisation makes sense but you can only harmonise when we all have a good understanding of the issues and all have laws governing biosafety.

GMO Safety: Leaving out regulation, crops that play no role in overseas trade would be accepted more easily?

Makara: Of course there are a number of crops that are not exported to Europe, but the crops that are associated with the popularisation of biotechnology – major crops such as cotton or maize – have a lot of linkages with Europe. On the other hand, not much has been done in the past with regard to traditional crops like bananas or cassava. But more research is taking place on local crops and when, with time, people see that these crops address problems they have, the crops stand a chance of being commercialised.

GMO Safety: Why did it take so long for these crops to be developed?

Makara: If you look at the technology itself and the period in which the first GM crops were commercialised in 1996, you see that it took a lot of time to develop these varieties like cotton and maize. Developing a new variety is not a matter of one or two years; whether the development is through GM technology or through conventional technology, it naturally takes long time. So I don’t think that these new local GM crops have been particularly delayed in their development. On the contrary, for some crop trials have already been conducted and so we hope that in the next few years – five, seven years – some varieties can be commercialised.

Makinde: Many farmers are eagerly waiting for governments to do the needful to introduce GM crops since, as part of the “seeing is believing” concept, they have done study tours to countries that adopted the technology. They would like to access and assess the technology themselves for their own particular commodity. In many African countries the private sector is already putting in place mechanisms to makes the seeds affordable to farmers. But infrastructure is still a big bottleneck in Africa, biotech or no biotech.

GMO Safety: Given the bottlenecks and hurdles for their introduction, why this focus on GM crops?


 

Makara: Research in Africa is not only on GMOs. Other types of research are going on to address agricultural problems and constraints. Genetic engineering is used only when there are limitations to conventional breeding. You may have heard about the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project in a number of countries. Because drought is a big problem these days, especially with climate change, we do conventional research and breeding, but there is a better chance to develop resistant varieties through biotechnology. Donors also provide research funding for other research areas such as soil management.

GMO Safety: In the discussion in Europe it is often said that patents on GMOs are a problem. How is this solved?

Makinde: These new GM crops are developed in partnerships between public researchers and the private sector. The issue of intellectual property is handled by a Foundation set up primarily for this purpose, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Makara: The technology used in these crops is royalty-free and once the crops are commercialised they can be used at no additional cost by small-holder farmers. The development of new GM crops is also overseen at the national level. For instance, in Uganda work on GM crops has to be approved by the national biosafety committee. Donors and scientists have to clarify their interests and justify their project.


GMO Safety: What justifies the development of these crops?

Makinde: These new GM crops are staple crops that Africans love to eat several times a day. They are aimed towards both small-scale and commercial farmers. These new crops are either fortified to increase their nutritional value or are protected against prevailing pests and diseases.

GMO Safety: Are these new GM crops local crops, i.e. will they be cultivated at their centre of origin?

Makara: The crops that are currently being developed are important for Africa but many are not African. Maize, cassava and sweet potato are not from Africa. Even the banana is not from Africa, it comes from Southeast Asia! There are no wild relatives of these crops.

Makinde: The biosafety of newly developed crops is assessed in confined field trials.

GMO Safety: Now that we have talked so much about Africa, do you have anything to say about Europe?

Makara: Europe should come to terms with GM technology and listen to its scientists. After all, Europeans accept biotechnology in pharmaceuticals and when they visit the US or South Africa they eat the food there without asking whether it is GM or not. Europe needs to understand that Africa needs GM crops most.


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