Biotechnology: Africa Must Take Decisive Action

Published on 31st May 2009

Agriculture is the mainstay of the majority of our countries. Most of our people live in the rural areas and depend on land for their livelihoods. As the population of the African continent increases, agricultural production and the ability to feed the ever-increasing populations are not only challenged by local conditions on the African continent, but globally by the economic recession, high food and fuel prices, climate change and related disasters.

We need to meet the food demands of the region’s increasing population. We also need to accelerate food production achieving annual growth rate of 6% as stipulated under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). This will be consistent with the pursuit of attainment of the Millennium Development Goal 1: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger. 

The regional approach to biotechnology and biosafety policy in Africa is fragmented. The pressure is still on for or against gene technology for food security and agriculture. Our people are not to blame; it is the policy makers and the scientists at large who have to take the blame for the inconclusive debates on this subject. Considering the emerging development in modern biotechnology and the rapid rate at which GMOs are diffusing in Africa, harmonization of biotechnology and biosafety policies is critical to mitigate potential impacts on food security in Africa. 

In Nairobi, Kenya, and within the framework of the 1st African Congress on Biotechnology in Africa (jointly organized by the African Union Commission and the African Biotechnology Stakeholder Forum and supported by several partners) over 400 participants recommended that a bio-safety roadmap be developed to support harmonization of biotechnology and bio-safety policies in Africa. 

At the African Union level, three milestones have been achieved in this direction; namely: Africa’s Consolidated Plan of Action on Science and Technology (AUC-DHRST); AU-NEPAD Panel Report on Modern Biotechnology:Freedom to Innovate; and African Position on Genetically Modified Organisms for Food and Agriculture that wishes to engage African countries in a 20 Year Strategy  on Biotechnology consistent with national priorities of each member state.

We are sharing these three strategic policy positions with the Regional Economic Communities to raise awareness and to invite public participation and opinion in decision making. The first workshop held for ECCAS countries was hosted by the Government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in Tripoli, Libya in November 2008; the second one in May 2009 brought together COMESA, SADC and EAC countries in Arusha, Tanzania. The next workshop will be hosted by Nigeria in Abuja for the ECOWAS and ECCAS countries in June 2009. 

For some time now, the rising cost of food all over the world has taken households, governments and the media by storm. The world food crisis is hurting a lot of people, particularly resource poor farmers in Africa. There is need to increase productivity and diversify food crop varieties among farmers in Africa, in order to meet food security needs, increase agricultural productivity and meet the MDGs.  

We are aware of the different levels of biotechnology research and application in Africa, notably: Commercial releases of LMOs into the Environment (RSA); Field Trials of various crops/ plants (in Egypt, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Zimbabwe); GM Research Laboratory and greenhouse levels (in NARO,Uganda) and Specialized Molecular Biology labs under establishment  in Mali. 

We are also aware of the progress made by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in building bridges for resource-poor farmers to access biotechnology developed elsewhere in the world with a potential to increase production and yields in Africa. The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) has concerted efforts to promote research and technology for agricultural development. The Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is engaged  in ensuring  high yielding seeds, fertilizers and other related technologies to increase agricultural outputs in Africa. The African Biotechnology Stakeholder Forum is embarking on ambitious programs for building capacities to handle all aspects of Biotechnology in Africa. We are also aware of the tremendous support to member states throught the UNEP/GEF NBF Projects, UNEP/GEF BCH Project, the GTZ - AU Project (2005/2006, which has been extended till 2010), the USAID - PBS Project, the BIO-EARN (SIDA) Eastern Africa and the several Bilateral and sub-regional bio-safety programs initiated with support from IFFPRI.  

With the exception and care in Bio-pharming technologies that may compete with the priorities for increasing food production and food security; the rejection of the patenting of all life forms, and positive engagement at national and regional levels with stakeholders and partners, AU Member States have been called upon by the African Union Commission to make a 20-year Vision for Biotechnology consistent with their national priorities; among which is the need to employ all national measures, including the domestication of the African Model Law on safety in biotechnology, to strengthen the Cartagena Biosafety Protocol. It is our collective responsibility to provide support as required to ensure that all is done to support African Member states for in developing these strategies.

By H.E Tumusiime Rhoda

AU Peace Commissioner for Department of Agriculture


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