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UN Report Backs Biotech In Africa

UN Report Backs Biotech In Africa

- Katie Mantell,

New technologies such as genetically modified (GM) crops will be vital in
helping Africa achieve sustainable development, according to a report by
the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

Harnessing Technologies for Sustainable Development, released to coincide
with this week's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg,
South Africa, warns that "the greatest risk for Africa is to do nothing,
allowing the biotechnology revolution to pass it by".

But the medical and agricultural benefits of biotechnology can only be
realised if a number of key challenges ˜ such as minimising risks and
making the technologies more relevant to the poor in Africa ˜ are
addressed, it says.

"Of particular importance to Africa are the recent advances in
biotechnology that promise to produce crop varieties with higher yields,
greater resistance to pests and disease, and better nutritional, health,
and environmental attributes", it says. The report cites Egypt, South
Africa and Kenya as examples of 'success stories' in deploying GM crops.

Biotechnology and genetics are also creating a wide range of new tools
that are changing how diseases are diagnosed, managed, and treated, it
says. These tools -  such as gene therapy, DNA-based vaccines, and novel
vaccine delivery systems ˜ could enable African countries to stem the
devastation caused by HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis.

However, the report states that biotechnology is not a technological
"quick fix" to Africa's hunger and poverty problems, and that critical
analysis and careful planning are needed to minimise the risks and realise
the full benefits of the technology.

Three main challenges face Africa in harnessing the potential of
biotechnology, it says. First, the current focus of biotechnology research
is on crops and disease strains that are common in developed, rather than
developing, countries.

Second, most African countries are not well equipped to address the
potential risks of these technologies to human and animal health.

And third, delivering these innovations to vulnerable individuals and
communities ˜ including farmers, people with HIV/AIDS, and those at high
risk of malaria and tuberculosis infection ˜ is difficult in poor
countries that lack resources and infrastructure.

To overcome these challenges, the report recommends that African countries
should promote African-focused biotechnology research on diseases
prevalent in Africa, and on 'neglected' crops, such as cassava, millet,
sorghum, sweetpotato and yams. It is also vital to increase investment in
modern biotechnology research, it says, and to promote regional
initiatives and public/private sector partnerships.

'African-owned' biotechnology policies ˜ devised with the involvement of
all relevant stakeholders -  are also needed, the report states, as well
as the establishment of national regulatory institutions for risk
assessment and management.

Under the right circumstances, "modern medical and agricultural
biotechnology can contribute much to increased food security and better
health in African countries by speeding the agricultural productivity and
epidemiological transitions in these countries," the report concludes.

Download the UNECA report: Harnessing Technologies for Sustainable
Development at (Excerpts and conclusion


Harnessing Technologies for Sustainable Development
- Economic Commission for Africa, ECA Policy Research Report

New and emerging technologies can yield a high payoff in catalyzing
Africa‚s transition to sustainable development. Where effective, the new
technologies can lower the incidence of disease, reduce food insecurity,
and reduce vulnerability to environmental damage by allowing more flexible
crop management systems.

These are some of the conclusions in Harnessing Technologies for
Sustainable Development. The report also tracks the progress of African
countries towards sustainable development. The indicators reveal sobering
challenges - while some countries have made good progress, many have
slipped down the rankings.

The Report identifies medical and agricultural biotechnologies as key
missing ingredients often overlooked as a basis for sustainable
development. These exciting new technologies range from genetically
engineered mosquitoes that have the potential to eradicate malaria, to
vitamin A enriched rice that can reduce blindness in children. And many
more are on the horizon.

But the new technologies are no panacea or silver bullet. Producing them
and spreading their benefits will not happen automatically. That will
require critical analysis and planning-  by regional and international
organizations and governments, private sectors, and civil societies- to
take full advantage of the technological revolution. It will also require
coordinated actions and strategic partnerships in fostering first-rate
intellectual public goods, including scientific research and public policy
analysis, national and regionally. Economic Commission for Africa

Conclusion: Biotechnology offers rich opportunities to increase
agricultural productivity and address current food shortages in Africa. It
accelerates plant and animal breeding efforts. It offers solutions to
previously intractable problems. But it is no panacea. African countries
need to develop appropriate national policies and identify key national
priorities for biotechnol-ogy, bearing in mind the potential biological
risks and the needs of poor people who rely on agriculture for their
livelihoods. And the international community needs to loosen the
arrangements for access to proprietary technology˜enabling developing
countries to pro-vide poor farmers with improved seeds while protecting
them from inappropriate restrictions on propagating their crops.

Open debate is essential. Governments should involve diverse stakeholders
in the development of national biotechnology policies, strategies, and
plans. And they should encourage full and candid discussions on
biotechnology, aimed at determining how best to address problems while
building achievements. Biotechnology policy should take into account
national development policies, private sector interests, market
opportunities, and mechanisms and links for the diffusion of technology.
The biggest risk for Africa would be to do nothing, allowing the
biotechnology revolution to pass the continent by. If that happens, Africa
will miss opportunities for reducing food insecurity and child
malnutrition and see the agricultural productivity gap with industrial
countries widen. The result could be what Ismail Serageldin (1999), former
chairperson of the CGIAR, calls "scientific apartheid," with cutting-edge
science oriented exclusively towards industrial countries and large-scale

Additional Excerpts:

Realizing the Promise of Green Biotechnology for the Poor

"Thirty years ago I was chosen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize,
representing the thousands of researchers who created the higher crop
yields of the Green Revolution. Today, we are faced with another equally
enormous task. We must learn to produce nearly three times as much food
for the more populous world of 2050. The International Food Policy
Research Institute recently projected that Africa is a "building
catastrophe." African farms are currently locked in a downward spiral, in
which the traditional bush fallow periods are shortened from 15 or 20
years to as little as two or three - which means crop yields are
declining, soil nutrients are depleted and still more land must be planted
every year to feed the people. I've spent the past 20 years trying to
bring the Green Revolution to Africa˜where farmers use traditional seeds
and organic farming systems that some call "sustainable." But low-yielding
farming is only sustainable for people with high death rates. Africa
desperately needs the high-yield farming systems that have made the First
World's food supply safe and secure." - Norman Borlaug, Winner of the 1970
Nobel Peace Prize (Wall Street Journal, 13 May 2002)
Some key facts
* About 70% of Africans live in rural areas and depend, directly or
indirectly, on agriculture. *Average cereal yields in Africa are half
those in the other developing regions - Asia and Latin America and the
Caribbean. * Across Africa, yields of maize - the staple food crop in most
of East and Southern Africa- average about 1.7 tonnes a hectare, compared
with a global average of 4 tonnes. * About 5 million hectares of forest
are lost annually in Africa, mostly to the expansion of crop area.

* By 2010 more than 35% of the Sub-Saharan African population will be
undernour-ished, the highest rate among all regions. * Advances in crop
biotechnology promise to produce superior variants: crops with higher
yields, higher nutritional content, and tolerance to pests and drought. *
In Kenya the genetically modified sweet potato is expected to raise yields
to levels up to 60% higher than those of traditional varieties˜without the
use of pesticides. * In South Africa the use of Bt (Bacillus
thuringiensis) cotton seed has increased cotton yields by an average of

Harnessing Technologies for Sustainable Development *Modern biotechnology
offers possibilities for amplifying the achievements of the green
revolution by improving the ability to diagnose plant and animal pathogens
and accel-erating conventional plant and animal research. * Like any other
scientific discovery, biotechnology will not work magic on its own.
African governments need to develop appropriate policies bearing in mind
the needs of poor people dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. *
Both modern biotechnology and conventional breeding techniques should be
sup-ported and encouraged.

Rapid developments in science allow people to understand living organisms
in greater detail than ever before. The new knowledge enables scientists
to modify the very building blocks of life - the genes themselves.

But many concerns about modern biotechnology have been raised in the
developed world. * Consumer concerns about the short- and long-term safety
of genetically modified (GM) foods for people. * Environmental concerns,
including worries about such effects as reduced biological diversity,
proliferating superbugs, gene leakages, and the sustainability of
agriculture using GM seeds. * Ethical, religious, and other societal
concerns stemming from the possible impact of GM crops on society.

Africa has an important stake in this debate, but its concerns have not
been adequately voiced (Juma 2000a). Dictating those concerns is the
urgent need to feed its growing population and reduce widespread poverty,
hunger, and starvation. Africa‚s current population of 750 million is
projected to rise to 1.7 billion by 2050, growing faster than the
population of any other major region- and twice as fast as food production
in the region (Pinstrup-Andersen and Pandya-Lorch 1999). So, in the
absence of significant productivity gains or expansion of agriculture into
tropical forests and marginal lands, it is clear that there will not be
enough food to feed people and reduce poverty (Wambugu 1999; McGloughlin

The green revolution has demonstrated that technological change in
agriculture can be a powerful force in increasing crop yields and reducing
poverty. The new high-yielding varieties introduced in the green
revolution doubled cereal production and lowered real food prices. The
poor benefited more than the rich, since they spend more of their income
on food (FAO 2000). The high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat were
based on new genes for dwarfing that made the varieties shorter and more
responsive to fertilizers. Of particular importance to Africa today is
whether recent advances in biotechnology can be safely harnessed to
produce foods that have greater yields, resist pests and diseases, and
offer other positive nutritional, health, and environmental attributes
(Brink, Woodward, and DaSilva 1998). Many African countries depend heavily
on agriculture, so they stand to benefit disproportionately from any
technology that can increase the production of food, enhance its
nutritional quality, and minimize the exploitation of forests and marginal

Realizing the Promise of Green Biotechnology for the Poor 81 Top leaders
in Kenya have embraced the promise of GM crops, stressing that "while the
Green Revolution was a remarkable success in Asia, it largely bypassed
Africa. Today the international community is on the verge of a
biotechnology revolution that Africa can-not afford to miss" (Paarlberg
2001, p. 46). Nigeria's Minister of Agriculture underscores that same
point: "Agricultural biotechnology, whereby seeds are enhanced to instill
herbicide tolerance or provide resistance to insects and disease, holds
great promise for Africa - We don't want to be denied this technology
because of a misguided notion that we don't understand the dangers of the
future consequences" (UNDP 200, p.69).

Despite support for biotechnology from some governments (the United
Kingdom, the United States) and international organizations (Consultative
Group on International Agricultural Research, Food and Agriculture
Organization, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,
United Nations Development Programme), opposition remains strong in
several industrial countries, particularly in Europe. Concerns about GM
foods, cultural preferences, resource sustainability, and environmental
protection have led to restrictions on modern agricultural technology,
including a moratorium by the European Union on the approval of commercial
use of GM foods.

Highly publicized outbreaks of food-borne diseases (such as mad cow
disease) have rooted food safety issues at the heart of this debate and
heightened consumer awareness. Much more needs to be done to clarify the
issues. In most public debates biotechnology has become synonymous with
genetically modified organisms (GMOs), though these are only one of many
products (box 3.1). Moreover, the debate over GMOs has so far focused on
risks to human health and the environment, with little attention to the
concerns of developing countries (Juma 2000a).

The economic stakes are high because Africa needs to diversify away from
traditional export crops to higher-value-added foods, such as tropical and
subtropical fruits and fresh vegetables. GM products could be met with
non-tariff barriers to trade, which would limit Africa‚s ability to
exploit its comparative advantage in non-traditional exports and thus the
ability of the nascent private sector to create jobs and raise incomes.
But biotechnology could catalyse enterprise development, enhance the
competitiveness of agricultural products, and thus promote Africa‚s
integration into the world economy (Juma 2000c).

This chapter critically evaluates the debate on crop biotechnology in the
African con-text. Illustrating the range and nature of current risks and
opportunities inherent in the technology, it focuses on how to ensure that
access to agricultural biotechnology benefits poor farmers in Africa. The
conclusion: while there are serious concerns about the impact of
agricultural biotechnology on human health and environmental safety, the
benefits are likely to greatly outstrip the risks (Egwang 2001). But to
realize these benefits, African countries need to develop appropriate
national policies and identify key national priorities for biotechnology
while bearing in mind the potential biological risks and the needs of the
poor. All stake-holders should be involved in formulating the national
biotechnology policies, strategies, and plans.