By Duncan Mboyah
As the role of modern biotechnology continues to draw furious scientific debates and intense public controversy, Eastern Africa governments are now being challenged to harmonize their policies to help transform agriculture - led economic development.
Following a recent move by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to assist all countries in the world to liberalize their trade to be able to stay at par with each other, it is important that harmonization is viewed with seriousness now and not later.
Given the expected accompanying expansion of trade and the enormous potential of such improved trade and investment flows for stimulating economic growth and development, it is now very clear that the activities of the WTO are of relevance to the implementation of the goals of African countries.
The move is important to Africa and in particular sub - Saharan Africa that is currently suffering from development crisis that is pegged on stagnant growth in agricultural sector.
Current trends indicate that Africa will experience a 250 million tones food shortage within the next 25 years.
At a meeting that was held recently in Jinja, Uganda and attended by stakeholders from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Eritrea, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it was noted that the regional countries urgently put in place domestic policy making in biotechnology in order to bargain and benefit.
It was observed that Genetically Modified foods must be viewed by regional countries as a commercial benefit to the countries producing them rather than food for domestic consumption only.
The idea was born following indications that countries within the region were either developing a policy of their own or have not started doing anything at all.
It was however recommended that regional governments develop negotiation positions to provide a common forum that can formulate strategy for joint research, joint standard setting and joint risk assessments.
The meeting that was attended by over 20 scientists amongst other stakeholders and sponsored by the International Centre for trade Sustainable Development (ICTSD) in collaboration with the African Technology for Policy Studies (ATPS), the African Union (AU) and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), also recommended a joint monitoring of impacts and benefits and the construction of a regional biosafety clearing house.
It was however recommended that the governments commit a fixed percentage of their budgets to biotechnology to co finance research and development by the industry.
Funding was listed as the main constraint affecting the implementation of effective biotechnology regulations and development.
The regional governments were also asked to provide incentives by offering special credits and provide non financial services by entering into partnerships that enhances commercialization.
“Following the increase of trade and use of biotechnology products, it is important that African countries and other developing countries generate viable policy options to deal with such reality”, ICTSD Executive Director Dr. Ricardo Melendez – Ortis says.
He observes that despite the slow pace in developing a policy by governments in the region, GMO products continue being traded within the region or imported through kind food donations whenever calls for food donations are raised.
As such, differences in country policies and regulatory regimes are likely to undermine trade between countries and delay the benefits envisaged under regional integration.
According to the ATPS Business and Trade Manager Ms. Sheila Maina, her organization has embarked on a comprehensive biotechnology programme that provides a forum for African scientists, policy makers, civil society, farmers, private sector and other stakeholders to debate and voice their concern on the potential of modern biotechnology in solving African problems.
She observes that whereas the debate about biotechnology should be how it can be promoted, supported and applied in safe and sustainable ways that improve agriculture and socio – economic welfare of the people, policy makers in the continent must be involved.
As it is a well known fact that most countries in this region, if not all have rushed to sign the Cartagena protocol on the biosafety, it is somehow not well understood why these same governments are buying time in coming up with a regional policy or their own policies.
The deep rooted anxieties that continue to be witnessed requires urgent attention from policy makers and scientists, as it is a well known fact that biotechnology is here with us and that most countries in Europe and America are already making profits from it through medicine and agriculture.
The benefits of biotechnology and specifically, agricultural biotechnology are now at the forefront of international interest as it has the potential in influencing agriculture, Forestry and fishery, not to mention livestock and medicine sub sector where it has done wonders.
Many scientific studies conducted worldwide have pointed to the promise of biotechnology as an instrument of development and its potential to solving Africa’s challenges.
This technology is widely being seen by most companies in the US and Europe as an area they can trade in, something Africa also needs to prepare to benefit from to be able to boost her Gross Domestic product (GDP).
Interestingly only a few countries that includes South Africa, Kenya, Egypt and Mali are currently putting in place structures for research and development of the technology whereas countries in the west are busy rushing to put their laboratories in place having realized its potential.