• Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Africa’s agriculture system… need for new approaches

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The transformation of Africa’s agriculture system will require new approaches, new methodologies, new efficiencies, and the accompanying political focus needed to effect change. This is according to Judith A. Chambers, Patricia Zambrano, José Falck-Zepeda, Guillaume Gruère, Debdatta Sengupta, and Karen Hokanson of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in a report commissioned by the African Development Bank.

These researchers highlight the fact that Africa is faced with a variety of current pressures such as population growth, poverty, food insecurity, climate change, and so on. According to them, most African countries, by adopting a status quo approach or by using outdated technology to drive the sector, will not be competitive in a global trade system that is increasingly using the tools of agricultural biotech to develop novel products.

Agricultural biotechnology comprises several scientific techniques (genetic engineering, molecular marker–assisted breeding, the use of molecular diagnostics and vaccines, and tissue culture) that are used to improve plants, animals, and microorganisms. However, IFPRI has focused on Genetic Modification (GM) technologies in particular and on the agricultural context in which they are being applied, because GM technologies are at the centre of the controversy about biotechnology’s role in Africa.

Regulatory Policy

They note that the lack of regulatory policy governing GM products is one of the most detrimental factors affecting current biotechnology progress on the continent. “There are a number of products that could provide immediate benefit to African farmers, but most farmers are unable to access these products due to poor regulatory decisionmaking capacity and indecisive political positions. The regulatory climate on the continent has been shaped primarily by discussions arising from the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The protocol’s original scope was narrow, with a focus on identifying and mitigating any risks posed to biodiversity by Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs),” says the report.

The researchers identify the strict, risk-oriented interpretations of the protocol (the precautionary principle)  as the basis on which most of Africa have established  a de facto regulatory instrument for the African Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology, which was initially developed by the Organisation for African Unity and is now endorsed by the African Union (AU). The AfDB commissioned report points out that the legacy has been that regulatory systems in African countries are largely driven by environment ministries despite the crosscutting nature of the technology.

The researchers stress that the regulatory capacity on the continent on biotechnology is fundamentally weak, with only a few countries in leadership positions. According to them, the technical command of issues by many regulators is limited, especially because few have practical experience with the technology. “It is common for regulatory frameworks to present a conflicted approach that can be inconsistent with global norms (similar to those in evidence in Europe). A number of regulatory frameworks have strict liability provisions and unwieldy risk assessment requirements that are not commensurate with the risk currently posed by the technology. Most systems have not evolved from policy to practice. Finally, there is a distinct lack of harmony between biosafety laws and other legal frameworks, both nationally and regionally. Only one regional harmonisation effort, undertaken by the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), has made sufficient progress toward becoming an operational reality with the 2013 approval of the Guidelines for Harmonisation,” says the report.

Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)

The researchers also point out that discussion of IPR in Africa relates to a tangled array of issues involving ethical concerns about the “patenting of life,” concerns about monopolistic controls on food supplies, and the role of indigenous people as protectors of agricultural biodiversity.

They note that even though African countries have options (beyond patents) at their disposal to protect indigenous or external intellectual property assets, options that provide significant latitude for the respect of cultural norms while simultaneously protecting the “inventive” step, few have actually dissected the issues and made productive steps forward, despite various treaty obligations that require adherence to some form of IPR for plants and animals. According to the research report, the experience of many developed and developing countries points to the adoption of IPR systems as a means to drive national innovation—they are considered a significant element of a national competitiveness framework, therefore, there is a need for much education (training, workshops, conferences, and so on) on this topic at senior political levels, as well as at the level of practitioners.

Trade and markets

On issues of international market for GM crops, the researchers explain that the irregular adoption of GM products throughout the world and their limited acceptance in the European Union, in particular, pose a number of trade-related issues for Africa. “For the most part, GM products are traded internationally with minimal disruption. Trade in these products is governed by import-specific safety and marketing regulations, private standards, and consumer preferences. Research has shown that adoption of the current GM crops will be beneficial for African countries, despite perceived export risks, but that the regulations countries set will have an impact on their economic welfare. Research findings suggest that export risk to Europe and other countries should be assessed on a case-by-case basis to avoid excessive precautions as seen in the past in African countries,” the report states.

They therefore recommend that import regulations for GM food should generally follow the Codex Alimentarius guidelines, as in other countries, but that African countries may consider simplified procedures for GM products already in the market. “The issue of the Low-Level Presence (LLP) of unapproved GM products in the food supply chain will also need to be considered to avoid trade disruptions. Finally, marketing regulations, especially labeling policies, which are sought by many African countries, need to be seriously analysed before introduction to avoid the creation of costly but unenforceable regulations that would confuse rather than inform unaware consumers. Similarly, documentation requirements that are being discussed in light of the Cartagena Protocol are expected to be costly and of limited use for regulators,” the report states.

Agbiotech and African development

Also highlighted in the report is that in the past few years, the global numbers of GM crops planted and rates of technology adoption have been steadily increasing, with the most impressive growth seen in developing countries among small-scale farmers. The researchers point out that nearly 15 years after the first commercial planting of a GM crop, the safety record of the technology suggests that the process of GM, per se, poses no significant risk to human health or the environment.

. “Meanwhile, despite continued low agricultural productivity in most of the region and the high-stakes, pressure to reverse a legacy of poor agriculture performance, Africa’s approach to agbiotech has been cautious. Only four countries (Burkina Faso, Egypt, South Africa, and Sudan) have planted GM crops commercially, and only a few others (Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe) have planted GM crops in confined field trials,” highlighted the researchers.

The study urge the the need to transform Africa’s agriculture sector from one of historically low productivity to one that is a high-potential driver of economic development, drawing on technological and systemic improvements to foster intensification as opposed to extensification. It stresses that the use of cutting-edge technology in agriculture is in line with global norms and represents a move toward rapid increases in yields and productivity, and is consistent with advanced development trends. The analyses conducted in the study support the need to use advanced technologies in order to reposition African agriculture as a competitive contributor in an evolving global bioeconomy.

The reviews by the researchers argue for a consideration of biotechnology in Africa from this context—one that has an expansive perspective that considers the short-term, albeit very important, requirements for food security and basic human development and also provides the basis for dynamic long-term growth and evolution that address future societal needs and opportunities in a holistic manner. Growth in intensive farming, fisheries, development of biofuels, sustainable forestry, and improved nutrition and health are all target areas the researchers note could benefit from an expanded and holistic vision. The report stresses that biotechnology is one tool that can be used to achieve this reality, and it has been transforming agriculture elsewhere and in countries at various points on the development spectrum.

OLUYINKA ALAWODE