Lesson for Africa on risks and rewards of regulating gene editing

Prudent regulation of research and innovation can strengthen the adoption and growth of Science Technology and Innovation (STI).

Prof Martin Lema, a policy and regulation expert from Argentina, says a country’s regulatory environment can promote or stifle STI development.

In the case of Argentina, regulations have pushed the country to a regional leader in the field of Genetically Modified (GM) crops.

The country is the third largest grower of GM crops, with 23 million hectares sown with GM seed annually – mainly GM Soybean, Corn and Cotton.

“Regulation has a powerful impact on innovations. It can promote or stifle STI development,” says Prof Lema, an adjunct Professor at the Quilmes National University.

Prof Lema gave a keynote speech titled “Regulating gene-edited technologies: Experiences from Africa and lessons from Argentina and Latin America and the Caribbean” during the second STI conference held in Kigali, Rwanda in April.

The two-day event was hosted by the Rwanda government in collaboration with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), and the Africa Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD)

“Argentina presents a perfect example of a country that has implemented science-backed regulations,” said Prof Lema, adding that the Argentina case study presents the importance of a fit-for-purpose regulation of Genome Editing in agriculture, which is a critical pillar for success.

He said Africa needs to relook its regulatory systems to establish a clear criterion for classification of products as a determinant of how they will be regulated.

“Regulating Genome editing should acknowledge the fact that most of the time scientists need to combine technologies that have complementary capabilities and therefore regulations should not assume that each technology exists in isolation,” added Prof Lema.

In Argentina, Prof Lema said gene editing has not only been utilised in crops but also in animals. Scientists managed to edit a bull to improve meat production. However, In Africa, most guidelines and regulations for Genome editing are developed focusing on plants while ignoring livestock.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has advised countries to “avoid arbitrary and unjustifiable distinctions between end products derived from precision biotechnology and similar end products obtained through other production methods.  This call is based on the existence of different approaches applied internationally in assessment of agricultural biotechnology.

Prof Lema added that the pipeline through which the Conventional Varieties, GMOs, NPBTs and GE pass through from development to commercialisation is similar in some cases and differs in others.

However, even when the processes are the same, the regulation burden in most African is different for commodities which may go through similar pipelines, he added.

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