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Resource Networks to facilitate responsible Africa agricultural biotechnology emerge

Africa now has in place a number of Resource Networks to strategically address pertinent issues relating to the responsible development and use of agricultural biotechnology within countries, across sub-regions and around the continent.

African Biosafety Network of Expertise
Participants at the African Biosafety Network of Expertise meeting in Accra, Ghana

These Resource Networks are also to help strengthen and position the African group for tactical negotiations at the international level. This is to ensure that Africa’s concerns and views regarding biotechnology are well captured in globally legally binding instruments formulated at international conferences.

Biotechnology is the process through which scientists change the genes of plants and animals by introducing into them desirable genes from other related species. Experts says the application of biotechnology in agriculture is aimed at enhancing agricultural productivity as well as improving the nutritional quality of foods by addressing issues of land degradation, pests and drought among other things. The produce or products of this process are known as genetically modified organisms, GMOs or GM foods.

The Socio-Economic Resource Network for Africa was launched on Thursday, June 29, 2017 following an inception and planning meeting organised by the African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE) in Accra, Ghana. The core members who attended the meeting were from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Cameroon.

ABNE was established in October 2009 by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Planning and Coordinating Agency (NEPAD Agency), in partnership with Michigan State University with financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ABNE was purposely formed to offer its skills to African countries, in the effective use of science and biotechnology to pursue agricultural development.

ABNE has been assisting African countries to establish functional biosafety systems to regulate the development and use of agricultural biotechnology. The recent launch of the Socio-Economic Resource Network for Africa brings to five the number of such networks formed so far. The others launched earlier are: the Association of National Biosafety Agencies in Africa (ANBAA), the Environmental Safety Resource Network, Food Safety Resource Network, and Resource Network for Lawyers.

According to the Head of ABNE, Dr. Jeremy Ouedraogo, the Communicators Resource Network will be launched soon in Uganda to make a total of six of such specialised networks of Africans to help the continent to utilise biotechnology to improve Africa’s agricultural productivity.

He said the formation of the Resource Networks is in line with NEPAD’s major goal of mobilising African expertise to address current challenges facing the continent such as the escalating poverty levels and underdevelopment as well as to develop a new vision that would guarantee Africa’s renewal.

It is to ensure the attainment of this goal that the NEPAD Agency was established to facilitate and coordinate the implementation of regional and continental priority programmes and projects, and to push for partnerships, resource mobilisation and research and knowledge management.

Subsequently, one of the priority activities identified for policy reforms and increased investments is agriculture and food security, a sector underpinned by the increasing food needs of a growing population, aging workforce, lack of interest of Africa’s youth in agriculture, decreasing land for agriculture as a result of increasing competitive land uses, decreasing productivity and climate change impacts among other things.

Dr. Ouedraogo explained that the networks were formed by identifying and bringing together individual experts within countries, to make their expertise available to all African countries. He said this was necessary because ABNE realised that countries do not have the same level of required expertise in developing and regulating agricultural biotechnology.

He said: “This development is important for the building of an African consensus to enable the continent to speak with one voice at international negotiations. For us the best approach is to use the comparative advantage that countries have.”

Michigan State University’s WorldTap Programme Director, Dr. Karim Maredia, who was at the event, expressed similar sentiments, saying: “Our goal is to expand the expertise base in African intellectual resources for National Biosafety Systems. This is an African initiative and it belongs to NEPAD.

“We want to highlight talents from Africa to serve as intellectual resources and expertise all over the world for the benefit of Africa. The ultimate goal is for safe biotechnology crops to reach the African small holder farmers to enhance food security and livelihoods.”

Dr. Maredia admitted that a lot of work needs to be done “as we’re developing and promoting new technology, and we want to ensure that the issues of small holder farmers are addressed.”

He was confident that the formation of the Resource Networks would ensure that issues including socio-economic considerations are incorporated in biotechnology decision making.

Jon Guenthner, Prof. Emeritus at the University of Idaho, who also cultivate biotechnology potatoes, attended the meeting. He explained that “adoption of the new technology presents a win-win situation in which a farmer gets high prices for the produce and a consumer gets lower prices,” adding, “and this is not a contradiction.”

He stressed the need for small holder farmers to access the technology saying, “With this new technology there can be a progression through which they can grow into large commercial farmers and the key is access to the technology.”

Earlier, a Senior Programme Officer of ABNE, Samuel Timpo, briefed the meeting on socio-economic considerations in biosafety decision making and highlighted Africa’s agenda in utilising biotechnology to address challenges in agriculture.

He said the main challenges include an aging farming population of 55 years and above; high agricultural potential but low productivity; Africa being a net importer of food spending about $40 billion every year on food imports; and majority of Africa’s population being young with agriculture as a potential employer, but the youth not interested.

Timpo considered as a political decision, Africa Union’s stance to use science and technology as vital tools in enhancing agricultural productivity on farms and along the agri-food value chain for competitiveness and market access. He also considered as a continental decision the identification by the African Ministerial Conference on Science and Technology (AMCOST) of biotechnology as a developmental tool that must be harnessed safely.

He mentioned some factors that influence the adoption of biotechnology by farmers as including relevance to needs and interests, affordability, accessibility, profitability and safe for users, consumers and the environment.

He presented some pointers as food for thought: countries that move forward in adopting biotechnology weigh benefits with risks in decision making; and every economic activity has four types of risks namely innovation, technology, product and market risks.

Dr. Isabella Dabire of the International Agricultural and Environment Research (INERA) based in Burkina Faso stressed the need to build the capacity of extension officers to deliver the right messages to farmers. She said it is equally important for scientists to engage directly with end users of the technology to deliver appropriate messages to them.

The formation of African-based Resource Networks to champion the development and application of science and technology in areas including agriculture is seen as a welcome development. NEPAD Agency and the bodies formed under it have set the pace for the moblisation of existing human resources.

What is left is boldness and innovativeness on the part of these Resource Networks and other bodies of expertise that will eventually be formed, to work hand in hand with leadership sincerely committed to addressing human development needs and eradicating poverty.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang, Accra, Ghana

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