Africa Must Create Its Own Biotechnology Agenda
Maize farmer in Uganda
Building public support for genetically modified crops in sub-Saharan Africa means developing a homegrown solution to the region’s own needs.
This week representatives from African countries will gather in Johannesburg, South Africa, for Agricultural Science Week. Many will be asking how their governments can respond to the pressure from large parts of their agricultural communities to commercialise genetically modified (GM) crops on one side, and the large sectors of their voting publics against GM on the other.
At one level, the decision seems straightforward. Scientific achievements in GM plant breeding over the past two decades have produced a range of new crops that can increase farmers’ productivity while reducing their production costs — for example, by substantially lessening the needs for fertilisers and insecticides.
But at the same time, GM technology has not been around long enough for all its side effects to be understood. For critics of the technology, the worrying possibilities of what might happen were the technology to get out of control — however remote — is sufficient reason to halt development until more is known.
Put in these terms, the political challenge is familiar. A new technology needs an effective regulatory regime that allows its potential to be harnessed safely, while potential side effects are closely monitored.
Indeed, as highlighted in our regional spotlight on agricultural technology published this week, implementing such biosafety regimes is now a priority across Africa (see Agri-biotech in sub-Saharan Africa).
A groundswell of opposition
But if the challenge is familiar, why has it taken so long to put solutions into place? Partly this is because scientific uncertainty remains over what the side effects are likely to be. But, more importantly, a groundswell of opposition from vocal critics has exploited this uncertainty to place governments on the defensive, reluctant to move forward for fear of alienating voters.
Such opposition needs to be taken seriously. One response is to demonstrate that governments are adequately informed about the potential risks of GM technologies before making decisions on biosafety regulations. Here the scientific community — both individual scientists and institutions such as scientific academies — can help.
Governments must also ensure that their electorates are sufficiently informed about both the potential benefits and risks of GM technologies. Information campaigns — in which journalists have a role to play through sound reporting — will not necessarily endorse GM crops. They will, however, increase the chances that political decisions come out of scientifically-based arguments, rather than unfounded speculation.
A political agenda?
Yet as European governments have discovered, neither a pledge to evidence-based decision making, nor the organisation of campaigns promoting public understanding of biotechnology are sufficient. Both ignore the extent to which many critics have a political agenda — namely a desire to oppose not so much GM technology itself but the multinational corporations promoting it.
To this, there is no straightforward reply. The critics legitimately argue that corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta control many key GM technologies. Such corporations’ primary loyalty is to their shareholders, not their customers.
But a large proportion of work on GM crops also comes from the public sector, through international agricultural research centres, for example.
Still, this has done little to soothe the public perception — which some politicians have been quick to seize on — that commercialising GM crops in a country opens up its farmers to exploitation by foreign interests.
A homegrown industry
There is only one appropriate long-term response to this argument. African countries — like others in the developing world — must develop the scientific and technological capacity to ensure that biotechnology meets their own needs, on their own terms.
This means building programmes that address the potential of GM technology to enhance the ‘orphan crops’ often neglected by foreign corporations. Such crops, including cassava, pigeon pea and sorghum are already under development, but more support is needed, particularly in the regulatory arena.
Political leaders must acknowledge that biotechnology can become a homegrown industry in Africa — and they must be willing to commit the necessary resources. This should include fewer incentives for foreign companies to set up shop, and greater investment in scientific infrastructure and capacity building efforts including support for universities and regional research networks.
A step in this direction was taken in January when African Union leaders endorsed a 20-year ‘Freedom to Innovate’ biotechnology plan. But endorsing a plan is one thing, putting it into effect is another. Until that happens, genetic modification will continue to be seen as a Northern technology meeting predominantly Northern interests — and opposition will continue to flourish.