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6-Regulation: The status of biosafety in Africa

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SOURCE: IBS News Report, USA, by Tawanda Zidenga
DATE:   July 2003

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Agricultural biotechnology holds a great promise for Africa. Tissue
culture and marker-assisted selection are already in widespread use
across the continent while for most countries genetic transformation is
still in the developing stages. The safe application of these
technologies requires functioning biosafety systems throughout Africa.
This article focuses on the special issues related to biosafety in Africa
and describes the current status of biosafety in the continent, with
specific examples of current progress given for Egypt, South Africa, and

 Agricultural and social systems in Africa differ considerably with those
in the West; therefore, some differences between Africa and the West are
encountered in both the approach to and emphasis placed on biosafety
issues. First, while hybrid seed adoption by smallholder farmers is now
considerably high, some farmers still save seed from the previous harvest
to plant in the next growing season. The right of farmers to save seed is
probably one of the biggest issues in risk management, since seed-saving
makes it almost impossible to specify and monitor the conditions of use1.
In some sectors, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are still being
identified with the terminator technology (which has never been
commercialized), leading some people to fear that these technologies
could create a kind of dependency on large seed companies, driving
farmers into a technological fix. While the potential role of the
terminator technology in biosafety has been suggested, it cannot be
recommended under these circumstances. Second, many of the most important
crops in Africa, such as banana and the root and tuber crops (cassava,
sweet potato, potato, etc.), are not normally supplied through seed
companies. Currently, there is some systematic distribution of tissue
culture (virus eliminated) material in countries such as Zimbabwe and
Kenya, but informal propagation will always occur. Such a scenario
creates a challenge for the biosafety framework to be adopted. Once a
genetically modified cultivar of sweet potato is released into the
market, it will spread to other areas through this informal propagation.

 The third issue relates to food aid. Food security and food safety offer
regulatory challenges in Africa. Africa frequently runs into food
shortages compounded by drought and unstable political systems. In such
situations, there is provision of food aid from other countries. A
biosafety protocol may need to address how to deal with this food aid.
Zambia made headlines when it rejected GM food aid from America, a
decision that was made against a background of starvation in some parts
of the country. The urgent need for food will put pressure on the
biosafety issues to be considered when dealing with food aid. Some
consider it a luxury to debate biosafety while people are starving, when
others argue that safety comes first. Other countries have accepted GM
food aid on the condition that the grain is milled to prevent it from
being propagated in the fields.

 The obvious differences in molecular capacity between western countries
and developing nations in Africa are also an issue. In designing a
biosafety system, a national assessment should be made of the existing
scientific and technical capacity2. A weak scientific and technical
capacity impacts negatively on the biosafety framework. Capacity building
in these countries is required not only to enable the development of
biotechnologies, but also to assist the regulatory authorities in
critically assessing draft models and deriving functional biosafety

 Public attitude towards GM foods in Africa often smacks of a victim
mentality. Fears of corporate control of an agricultural system that
traditionally was communally owned, coupled with apprehensions of
marginalization and the memory of colonial domination, lead to distrust
of solutions that appear imposed externally1. At the OAU Workshop on an
African Model Law on Biosafety held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (May 2001),
the text of a draft model law was tabled for adoption as an African
initiative until the next OAU Council of Ministers meeting. The model was
described by some as "preventative" and aimed at depriving Africa from
deriving the benefits of biotechnology. While the objective of
harmonizing biosafety legislation is praiseworthy, the OAU model ignored
existing model legislation in several countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe,
and Egypt) and draft legislation nearing adoption in many other African
countries. This could lead to diverse and conflicting national biosafety
systems3. The model contains numerous provisions, inconsistent with the
Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which member states have already
signed. The bill was opposed by scientists and leading groups in Africa,
such as AfricaBio ( and African Biotechnology
Stakeholders Forum (

 It is a point of consensus that improving food security and agriculture
in Africa requires more than technology. Good governance, wise policies,
infrastructure, and investment are other key requirements, and Africa
faces particularly high hurdles in these areas4. Against this background,
African countries have made impressive progress in biotechnology and
biosafety. Such undertakings obviously require funding, national
commitment, and political will. The UNEP-GEF Project on Development of
National Biosafety Frameworks ( (jointly
funded by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Global
Environment Facility) was designed to assist up to 100 eligible countries
in preparing their national biosafety frameworks and to meet the
requirements of the CPB.2 The project holds training workshops for the
people involved, such as the recently held UNEP-GEF workshop on
biotechnology and biosafety held in Nairobi Kenya on April 14--18, 2003.
This workshop focused on the implementation of the biosafety framework in
Kenya. Kenya is part of the East African Regional Programme and Research
Network for Biotechnology, Biosafety and Biotechnology Policy Development
(BIO-EARN;, along with Ethiopia, Tanzania, and
Uganda. BIO-EARN, which was founded in 1998, aims, among other things, to
promote collaboration in biotechnology and biosafety among its member
states. To implement a national biosafety system, it is important for
countries to identify the goals and objectives of their system and the
existing context for biotechnology and biosafety oversight.2 The design
must include the extent to which decisions will be guided by science
compared to other social factors.

The table below summarizes the status of biosafety in Africa.

STATUS                                      COUNTRIES
GM legislation and functioning framework    South Africa, Zimbabwe
GM legislation and framework in development Malawi, Cameroon
Draft legislation and interim framework     Egypt, Kenya
Draft legislation and framework             Cote d'Ivoire,
Mauritius,Zambia, Nigeria
not yet reviewed		
UNEP-GEF biosafety development process      43 countries

Egypt is one of the countries in Africa where research in biotechnology
is at an advanced stage. The Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research
Institute (AGERI; is one center for
state-of-the-art research in Egypt, focusing on developing pest resistant
and stress tolerant varieties of crops such as tomato, maize, and
potato2. Egypt issued biosafety guidelines in 1994 and procedures for
commercialization of GM plants in 1998.

 Zimbabwe has a Biotechnology Research Institute as well as the Tobacco
Research Board, both centers of state-of-the-art research, while some
work is also done at the University of Zimbabwe (transgenic maize
improvement, sweet potato micropropagation, and genetic engineering of
cowpea). Zimbabwe adopted biosafety regulations in 1998, and the National
Biosafety Committee was set up in 1999.

 South Africa has developed genetic engineering techniques and capacity
over the last two decades. However, this technology is only now being
applied or commercialized. There are about 55 companies involved in
biotechnology, with products mainly in the plant and medical sectors. In
1998, genetically modified agricultural crops were grown in South Africa
under a general release permit. The GMO Act of 1997, which was
implemented in 1999, controls the import of live genetically modified
products and is aimed at protecting the consumer as well as the
environment. This Act does not cover ethical issues such as human
cloning, but covers most other products of modern genetic modification

 It was proposed during this year's World Life Sciences Forum (http:// in Lyon, France, that regulatory mechanisms and
biosafety measures at national and international levels need to be
harmonized and a global system developed, building on the biosafety
protocol. Decision-making requires public participation, but public
participation demands public genetic literacy. Along with the development
of biosafety frameworks in Africa, there is a greater need to improve
public understanding of biotechnology. In the end, a biosafety framework
must not be a means to deprive Africa of a promising technology, but a
way of ensuring safe application based on sound science.


 1. Morris EJ and Koch M. (2002) Biosafety of genetically modified crops--
an African perspective. ABN 4: 102.

 2. Mclean MA, Frederick RJ, Traynor PL, Cohen JL, and Komen J. (2003) A
Framework for Biosafety Implementation: Report of a Meeting, organized by
ISNAR Biotechnology Service July 2001, Washington, DC, USA . http://

 3. Africabio (2001) Submission on the OAU model law on biosafety. http:/

 4. Conway G. (2003) From the green revolution to the biotechnology
revolution: Food for poor people in the 21st century. Woodrow Wilson
International Center for Scholars, Director's Forum, March 12 2003.

 5. Africabio (2003) South African biotechnology. http://

Tawanda Zidenga
Crop Science Department
University Of Zimbabwe


Moving Towards Genetic Literacy

- Tawanda Zidenga (
AgBioView, April 25, 2003;

Language makes easy the art of communication, and communication is the
very pinnacle of human progress. Those who can learn more languages will
have a better chance in the global village. More so, those who can learn
new languages will have an urge in the competitive world of technology.

Computer experts talk about the Hyper text mark-up language (html), the
language with which internet web pages are designed. Understanding this
language has placed many at the forefront of IT. On the other hand, the
26 letters of the alphabet have allowed most of humanity to communicate,
and have facilitated this interaction I have with my reader. By decoding
these sequences of letters in this article, you are able to make sense of
my argument.

A new language has emerged with the developments in Molecular Biology;
the language of genetics, with only four letters in its alphabet, A, C, G
and T. These letters represent nucleotide bases in the DNA molecule. This
alphabet is related to the 20 amino acids that make up our proteins. Each
set of three letters in a gene code for one amino acid. The "dictionary"
of these letters that make up the amino acids is called the genetic code.
The year 1953 marked a turning point in the history of genetics with the
discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by James D. Watson and
Francis Crick. The breakthrough was unique in that it did not result from
the usual laboratory affair of petri dishes and test tubes, but was a
result of serious thought and discussion based on information already

Today, 50 years later, we boast of vast developments in the lifesciences;
a vibrant biotechnology industry revolutionising both agriculture and
medicine, and a finer understanding of life at the molecular level. It
takes no more than a simple act of insight to see why literally everyone
should understand this language. It therefore was not surprising that
about 1200 participants gathered in the beautiful city of Lyon in France
from the 7th to the 11th of April 2003 for the BioVision World Life
Sciences Forum.

The participants were not only scientists. There were philosophers,
sociologists, economists and politicians, and all wanted to discuss and
debate on how the double helix has transformed and is set to transform
humanity. Topics from GMOs in agriculture and the environment to issues
of human life (expectancy, longevity, cloning etc) were discussed in four
parallel conferences during the forum. The need for genetic literacy
among the public in general was reiterated by a number of speakers. A
notable presentation was that by Juan Enriquez-Cabot of Harvard
University, who eloquently explained the need to understand the new code.

Science affects all of us, and all aspects of our lives. Yet very few
people understand it. In his book 'The Demon Haunted World', Carl Sagan
warned that this mixture of ignorance and power will make a dangerous
cocktail for the future. In my opinion the danger stems from two
divergent possibilities. The first is that those who do not understand
science often get in the way of those who do, preventing or disturbing
its application for human welfare.

Those who follow debates on GMOs and cloning will know of some the
unjustified fears and Hollywood style "movies" based on the "we don't
know what will happen" crap. The second possibility is that those who
understand it may take advantage of the ignorance of those who don't and
use it for the wrong things. The threats of bioterror and chemical
weapons are a case in point. As David Byrne, the European Commissioner
for Health and Consumer Protection said in his presentation at BioVision,
we need to ensure that science progress is matched by rigorous efforts to
guard against abuse of technologies. This is possible if we improve
literacy levels on matters of technology, gene technology in this case.

Increasing frustration was expressed on the apparent stagnation of the
GMO debate. For over a decade now the same questions are still being
asked. And in many cases, those who ask the questions, especially the so-
called "Greens" do not bother to listen to the answers. So the debate has
degenerated into something akin to a dialogue of the deaf, or a classical
case of a "you did" - "I didn't" argument between two five year olds.
Under such circumstances, we do not make much progress. Genetic literacy
is important, for with knowledge many of us will understand that concerns
are a cause of cautionary action rather than a reason for inaction.

In a closing address to the Nobel day during the Biovision forum, James
D. Watson expressed fury over unjustified resistance to the applications
of molecular biology in agriculture and medicine. "Everytime I hear the
word Precautionary principle my blood pressure rises...". Jim Watson for you

(Tawanda Zidenga attended the BioVision Life Sciences Forum in Lyon,
France as an all-expense-paid BioVision.nxt fellow, thanks to a posting
by C. S. Prakash on AgBioView. He is a graduate student at University of
Zimbabwe, Harare).

Note from Prakash: Tawanda is one of the brightest graduate students I
know. Recently I sponsored him to attend a biosafety workshop at Nairobi,
Kenya and thus was able to meet him for the first time. He is working on
corn transformation with Bt gene for his masters thesis and about to
complete the research soon. He is looking for a Ph.D. opportunity in
North America or Europe and intends to eventually help biotech move
forward in Africa.

If you are a college professor interested in mentoring Tawanda or know of
some one who can, please write to him directly at
<>. He is very thoughtful, writes so clearly
and very knowledgeable. He comes with my highest recommendation!


European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
Kleine Wiese 6
D - 38116 Braunschweig

phone:  +49-531-5168746
fax:    +49-531-5168747
mobile: +49-162-1054755
email:  genetnl(at)