Corn kernels await planting at a farm in rural Angola.
"Get Biotechnology on the Agenda for Africa"
Op-Ed, The Japan Times
June 30, 2008
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
Leaders at the Group of Eight industrialized nations' summit in Hokkaido next month need to take strong measures to promote cooperation in using biotechnology to address Africa's food challenges. At present there is resistance from Europe, and even Japan is dragging its feet on this vital issue.
Critics often argue that using modern biotechnology in African agriculture would harm farmers, wreck the environment and expose consumers to unknown risks. But by failing to adopt biotechnology, Africa puts its poor populations at greater risk of starvation. Without substantial investment in biotechnology to address critical challenges such as drought, Africa will continue to experience food deficits.
The G8 summit should encourage Africa and its partners to design new models of cooperation that involve partnerships between government, industry and academia. An example of such creative institutional arrangements is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.
The aim of the $47 million grant to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) is to develop drought-tolerant and royalty-free maize varieties for Africa. It will use marker-assisted technology and other biotechnologies. The first drought-tolerant variety will be available in seven years.
Critics argue that intellectual property rights prevent African countries from obtaining technologies to meet basic needs. But new drought-tolerance techniques have already been licensed to AATF without charge. They can be developed, tested and distributed to small-scale African farmers without charge.
Under this novel arrangement, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) avails itself of conventionally developed drought-tolerant, high-yielding maize varieties suited to African conditions. In addition to CIMMYT's expertise, Monsanto will offer proprietary genetic material and advanced breeding techniques.
Monsanto and BASF will offer royalty-free, drought-tolerant genes arising from their collaboration. Participating countries (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and South Africa) will provide additional expertise available in farmers' groups and local companies.
Considerable effort has gone into forging partnerships that let African countries enter into genuine partnership with companies in industrialized countries as envisaged in the "Freedom to Innovate" report commissioned by the African Union and the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development.
This partnership illustrates the potential for using new technologies to address the world's just causes. Numerous institutions around the world could play a key role in improving African agriculture, but persistent criticism and limited political leadership in the industrialized world continue to undermine international cooperation in the field.
For example, pathbreaking research of relevance into Africa's needs is carried out at the Kihara Institute for Biological Research at Yokohama City University. This research can help Africa enhance the nutritional content of indigenous crops and find plant-based remedies for a variety of tropical diseases. Such institutions could work more closely with the private sector.
This work is hindered by advocacy groups in industrialized countries who purport to speak for developing countries. Some of these groups receive government funding that is used to slow down technical progress in African countries.
At least the Luddites of 17th-century England professed a clear economic ideology to protect their local industries. Modern critics of biotechnology seem to show little interest in the welfare of the people they claim to be protecting.
Although the safety of biotechnology products continues to be a major concern for African countries, the capacity needed to ensure safety comes from efforts to develop the technology. It would be futile to develop the capacity to assess the safety of new products when no capacity exists to develop such products.
This is not to deny the importance of protecting the environment and consumers against unintended harm. Maximization of the benefits of new technologies must be balanced with the reduction of risks.
The demand that products be proven safe before commercialization, however, has denied Africa a crucial chance to learn to use the technology and gain a better understanding of its impact.
While the claims about risks need to be addressed, they no longer carry the same stigma worldwide. South America and Asia have in many cases leapfrogged into the genomics age through the adoption of biotechnology while its use in Africa remains largely marginal.
Advances in the use of biotechnology in South Africa and China, for example, show that safety measures co-evolve with the development of the technology. We should not blindly demand proof of safety as a prerequisite for using new technology. Such demands are ploys used to stall the adoption of new technologies by other vested interests.
Failure to adopt these technologies is one of the gravest risks facing poor countries. The G8 nations must show leadership in supporting new biotechnology partnerships with African countries. Dragging their feet will only prolong human misery.
Calestous Juma is a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and a senior visiting professor at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, Yokohama. He co-chaired the African Union's High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology. This article is based on his remarks at the G8 Dialogue organized in May by United Nations University, Tokyo.
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