Building Africa´s Confidence and Scientific Capacity to Manage Modern Biotechnology
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CTA. 2004. Building Africa´s Confidence and Scientific Capacity to Manage Modern Biotechnology. Knowledge for Development. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Permanent link to cite or share this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/63782
African policy-makers are increasingly confronted with a growing range of complex scientific, and ethical issues associated with the development and use of genetically modified products from modern biotechnology. They are under increasing pressure to pron
There are sharp differences of opinion about the benefits and risks of genetically modified (GM) crops. Proponents of modern biotechnology argue that crops genetically modified to resist pests and diseases and requiring less use of pesticides and herbicides are safer for the natural environment than conventional crops and are less likely to result in pesticide-related illness. Opponents focus on the potential detrimental impacts of GM crops. They argue that GM plants producing their own pesticides could accelerate the development of pesticide-resistant insect populations, that out-crossing between herbicide-tolerant crop plants and closely related weeds could lead to "super-weeds?, that engineered traits could leak into adjacent non-GM crops and that animal and insect species consuming transgenic plants could be harmed. Proponents would counter these arguments by saying that all of these risks exist with conventional agricultural products. There is now an intense debate on whether African countries should accept GM crops as part of the urgently needed aid to stem catastrophic famine and loss of human life. Unfortunately the debate is now erected on the old extreme positions: one that espouses GM crops as the solution to food insecurity and the other that speaks about GM products as the potential source of human destruction. Beneath the two extremes, there are complex policy and ethical issues. Such issues include food as part of cultural values, equity in terms of access to food, ability of African countries to engage effectively with scientific advances, public confidence in African scientific institutions, public understanding of new technologies, and many others. These issues often emerge and are left unattended by the extreme pro and anti- GM food activists. This is mainly because questions about GM crops and the causes of food insecurity are often framed to suit predetermined interests of certain social and economic institutions. Often their underlying question is: Are GM foods the solution to food insecurity in developing countries, particularly those of Africa? This question is posed because of the tendency to reduce a complex system of science and techniques into a few of its products. There is high uncertainty and increasing confusion as to how African countries should respond to the rapid developments associated with modern biotechnology. The uncertainty and confusion are largely caused by the intense international debate on the benefits and risks of genetically modified crops, and the absence of institutionalized domestic or national science advisory systems to guide African policy-makers and politicians in making informed decisions. How then should African countries respond to the opportunities and challenges posed by modern biotechnology and its products? First, these countries need to establish credible science advisory institutions and technology assessment programmes. Such institutions and programmes should enable them to examine all available science and encourage critical thinking by scientists as well as promote public dialogue. In the absence of domestic or national scientific advisory mechanisms, African governments will continue to react to the either/or positions of many vested environmental activists´, corporate interest, scientists´ and diplomatic groups. Secondly, they need to strengthen their scientific and technological competencies by improving or upgrading their laboratories and related infrastructure for biosciences related research. The countries can gain a better understanding of modern biotechnology and conduct risk assessment if they have domestic institutions with critical minimum infrastructure and human resources as well as adequate funding to undertake research in cellular and molecular biology. The New Partnership for Africa´s Development (NEPAD) has designed a regional programme that is aimed at assisting African countries to upgrade their scientific infrastructure. The programme will ?generate a critical mass of technological expertise in targeted areas that offer high growth potential? and ?harness biotechnology in order to develop Africa´s rich biodiversity and ? improving agricultural productivity and developing pharmaceutical products.?(1) NEPAD has launched the NEPAD/Africa Biosciences Initiative (ABI)?a network of world-class laboratories in which African scientific expertise will be mobilized and directed to conduct research in life sciences. The network will be dedicated to cutting edge science and innovation in such areas as genomics, bioinformatics and biosafety. It will be established as regional ´platforms´ of shared facilities or laboratories. The Initiative will mobilize and promote efficient use of Africa´s scientific infrastructure, and ensure that African scientists have access to such infrastructure for research, innovation, risk assessment and technology management. The first cluster of biosciences laboratories is being established in Nairobi, Kenya at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The second is likely to be hosted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria, South Africa. In addition to creating science advisory bodies and upgrading infrastructure for research, African countries will need to build public consensus on controversial ethical, legal and political issues pertaining to GM crops. NEPAD has recognized that the absence of African consensus and strategic approaches to address emerging biotechnology issues allows different interest groups to exploit uncertainty in policy-making, regardless of what may be the objective situation for Africa. In collaboration with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), NEPAD is establishing a regional platform on which Africa countries can engage in dialogue and develop a common biotechnology strategy. The platform would be a structured regional forum for dialogue, consensus formation and the development and adoption of common policies and strategies on biotechnology. On the whole, managing modern biotechnology will require knowledge-based platforms for decision-making and increased investment in scientific development. Countries of Africa should eschew the either or, pro and anti- sentiments and build scientific and technological foundations for harnessing benefits of the life sciences and modern biotechnology while at the same time reducing any risks. It is through their own investment in scientific research and technological innovation that they will be able to make informed decisions on which specific GM crops to import or accept as part of any food aid. Note : (1) NEPAD, 2001. The New Partnership for Africa´s Development, p. 36. Dr John Mugabe is the Science and Technology Advisor to the New Partnership for Africa´s Development (NEPAD) and Secretary of the African Ministerial Council for Science and Technology.