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Biotech in Africa - turning research into reality

Irene Muchiri of Kenya performs plant micro-propagation in Tissue Culture and Transformation Facility at DDPSC
credit: Donald Danforth Plant Science Center

A new study of publicly-funded biotechnology programmes in Africa calls for an increased focus on regulatory requirements to ensure safety of food biotech research and that benefits roll down to farmers. At a press conference in Nairobi, Dr. Joel Cohen, a senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and one of the authors of the study, observed that most African countries lack the expertise, capacity and funding to develop and comply with regulatory requirements despite the numerous studies ongoing within their public research institutions. While acknowledging that most public sector research is still in the laboratory or greenhouse (70 per cent) or confined field trials (28 per cent), IFPRI scientists believe that greater urgency in the policy formation process would help quicken the translation of research findings into reality. According to the study, the majority of government resources are currently targeted at infrastructure and scientific capacity building. In addition, studies on genetically modified foods are reportedly being derailed by a lack of harmony in regulation between neighbouring countries, which affects their ability to undertake joint study programmes.

Vibrant public research

Based on surveys in four African countries - Kenya, Egypt, South Africa and Zimbabwe - the study documents public biotech research on 20 crops (including maize, sweet potato and cowpeas) and is the first to highlight safety and regulatory requirements for specific crops and genetic traits. Cohen observed that while it is widely believed that corporations are the only drivers of GM foods, the reality in African countries was that the public sector was undertaking vibrant research programmes, typically with the aim of improving indigenous plant varieties relevant to small-scale farmers, and not through research by the private sector. According to the report, "Nearly three quarters of the genetic materials used in the study come from local plants, which are more suited for local needs and growing conditions." Professor Idah Sithole-Niang, a co-researcher from the University of Zimbabwe, added that "The crops under research in Africa are not associated with massive exports overseas; they are for broadening the local food basket."

Major research aims include reducing the need for pesticides, increasing drought tolerance and enhancing the nutritional value of staple foods. In 2004 another study to assess the state of publicly developed GM crops in 16 developing countries found that 13 public institutions had transformed 21 crops, incorporating a wide range of genes for insect, fungal, viral and bacterial resistance. The public institutions had also made significant moves towards protein and quality improvements, herbicide tolerance, salt and drought stress. Such improvements, if made available to farmers, states the report, would benefit the environment, improve health, reduce food costs, and increase the income of smallholder farmers in Africa.

More public-private partnerships needed

Of the countries that feature in the report, South Africa was judged to have invested impressively in biotechnology research and constructed a sound biosafety regulatory process. In Egypt, public biotech crop research has greatly benefited from collaborations with the private sector and much of this research is tailored to improving locally relevant crops, with seven crops currently being evaluated in field trials. The authors of the report express disappointment that such public-private collaboration is not found to the same extent elsewhere in Africa, with only 22 per cent of GM technologies in the study being developed under such partnerships. The other two countries in the study, Kenya and Zimbabwe, were found to be more typical of the wider situation in Africa. Kenya was reported to need more resources to strengthen its biosafety review capacity, while Zimbabwe lacks a clear national GM policy.

IFPRI is working with parliamentarians from across the continent and hopes to soon organise a meeting on biotechnology and biosafety legislation. The meeting, to be held in October 2005 near Cape Town, will be conducted jointly with the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). One theme of that meeting may be the need for regional groupings to promote collaboration on biotech research and so ensure that countries benefit from joint research programmes. "Countries from a particular region must devise ways of bringing scientists from each of the countries to focus on a particular crop so that there is no duplication of research efforts," suggested Sithole-Niang.

The full report and further information can be accessed on the IFPRI website.

Article written by Zablon Odhiambo

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1st September 2005