To grow or not to grow: Africa’s lingering dilemma on GM crops

By Dr Francis Nang’ayo

The potential revolution in farming made possible by Genetically Modified (GM) crops has been met with controversy, resulting in a great deal of ambivalence regarding policies for regulating this new technology.

Whereas some farmers, mostly smallholders in developing countries, have adopted GM crops and are now growing them commercially, others have taken a much more precautionary approach, ranging from policy restrictions to outright bans.

The complex and controversial global debate on GM technology seems to have steered some African countries to a more cautious attitude. For instance, in 2002, Zambia was reported to have declined GM maize donated as food aid even as the country reeled from the drought that threatened millions of people.

The narrative was the same in Zimbabwe, which only accepted the donation with a caveat that it is supplied in milled form and not as grain. Some other African countries such as Angola and Benin went to extreme lengths of imposing bans and moratoria against GM products.

The handful of countries in Africa that embraced GM technology did so by establishing regulatory systems to oversee research and development in modern biotechnology, a move that has witnessed progress with confined field trials (CFTs) on some half dozen crops in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Cameroun, Malawi and Nigeria.

However, going by the way these CFTs are installed and managed, including high-security fencing and round-the-clock security at testing sites, the general attitude across the continent remains one of extreme precaution. Matters almost got worse in 2012 when a French scientist sensationally published an article linking GM maize to the development of cancerous tumours.

The article attracted global attention from consumers, scientists, industry, academia and policymakers seeking to establish the validity of the claims.

Nearly a dozen professional toxicological societies, food safety agencies and academies of sciences are on record to have issued an expert opinion and position statements on this matter, clearly identifying the flaws in the study and the erroneous inferences.

It was eventually concluded that the paper did not have the scientific merit necessary for decision making, and that, in fact, it was too flawed to be published.

The misleading paper was later retracted from the journal that had published it, putting that controversy on GM food safety to rest. At last a rational, scientific assessment of GM technology triumphed over prejudice, fear and speculation!

This cloud of uncertainty probably serves to explain why Africa, the second-largest continent with 55 nation-states, inhabited by an estimated 1.2 billion people grows the least proportion (2.3%) of the world’s GM crops. This is ironic considering so many countries in sub-Sahara Africa are struggling with unsolved farm productivity problems, some of which could be addressed through GM technology.

Respected scholar Robert Paarlberg, in his book ‘The Politics of Precaution’, argues that regulating GM crops, a new and controversial technology, typically revolves around two diametrically opposite considerations.

On one hand, some countries are more driven by the inclination to promote the adoption of GM crops, while on the other extreme are countries inclined to prevent the adoption of transgenic crops. The former category is termed ‘promotional’ policy choice and the latter as ‘preventive’. There are, of course, gradients between promotion and prevention leading to a scale of four possible policy postures.

Kenya, for example, started off with a precautionary policy posture when it became the first country in the world to sign the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2000. It was thus a big surprise in 2012 to see a country that had made progressive steps to establish one of the most robust regulatory frameworks for modern biotechnology in Africa, ranking only second to South Africa, take a turn that represented a leap backwards with the Cabinet slapping a ban on GM food imports.

Uganda, just like Kenya, started off with a precautionary policy posture when it signed and ratified the Cartagena Protocol, and later published Guidelines and Regulations and adopted a National Biotechnology Policy in 2008. These early efforts enabled field testing of several GM crops in confinement for nearly a decade.

However, advances in the biotechnology agenda are potentially at risk of stagnation if precautionary considerations in Uganda fuelled by the ongoing sensational GM debate continue to delay the passage of the Biosafety Law that has been in and out of Parliament several times. Even the overwhelming pledge for support of the Biosafety Bill by the ruling party appears not to have marshalled the necessary traction for this critical legislative process.

Many other African countries have taken the extreme policy of either consciously or inadvertently prohibiting the adoption of GM crops. The case of the strict liability and redress regulatory regimes that are decreed in Tanzania and Togo serves to illustrate this point.

In legal parlance, strict liability pre-assigns fault to a specific party and imposes absolute legal responsibility for an injury or damage on them regardless of whether that party is at fault or has taken the necessary care.

Despite the existence of biosafety legislation and institutional frameworks in these countries, no CFTs for GM crops have ever been conducted. Although the application of GM technology is hailed as a major success in many parts of the world, there are persistent concerns about the safety and ethical and trade-related aspects of biotechnology products to consumers and the environment, necessitating their regulation.

In formulating a national regulatory policy for GM technology and GM food, countries often take into consideration the opportunities presented by GM crops and the potential risks associated with them. With 55 nation-states with diverse political persuasions, trade considerations and environmental interests, Africa is characterised by a mosaic of national policy positions on GM technology, ranging from those which can be considered to be permissive to those which are more precautionary and ultimately those which are preventive to the adoption of GM crops.

Admittedly, public opinion on GM technology in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa, is still steeped in controversy. As a result, public policy on GM technology is laced with precautionary overtones.

In these circumstances, regulatory regimes have emerged that implicitly assume that all GMOs present high risks unless proven otherwise, an approach which often requires inordinate amounts of information and data to be included in the safety dossier for regulatory clearance.

Some analysts have rightly observed that setting regulatory safety standards on such an impossibly high oversight pedestal is a sure way of keeping GM crops from these countries, thereby depriving their farmers of the benefits of such technologies. Africa needs a rigorous, responsible and predictable regulatory environment to take GM crops to market.

-Dr Nang’ayo is the Head of Regulatory Affairs, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF)

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