By Prof. Jean Jacques M. Muhinda
The latest report on global status of commercialized biotech crops shows a total of 70 countries have adopted biotech crops through cultivation and importation. However, adoption of modern biotechnologies in agriculture for improved production and trade in the COMESA region continues to linger in debate and controversy, despite efforts to maximize the benefits and reduce the risks.
Some of the efforts include the implementation of the COMESA Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, endorsed in 2014 by the Council of Ministers from COMESA countries. This policy translated into the COMESA Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy Implementation Plan (COMBIP) seeks to increase investment in biotechnology applications and agricultural commodity trade in the region.
At inception,COMBIP sets out to enhance biotechnology and biosafety awareness and outreach activities amongst COMESA member states and provides the states with a framework and mechanism for regional risk assessment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) intended for commercial planting, trade and emergency food aid. This implementation plan further aims at sharing knowledge and building the capacity of member states in order to make informed decisions within their own biosafety regulatory frameworks.However, there is limited understanding of biotechnology amongst key stakeholders within the member states, with public misconception about this technology remaining a thorn in the flesh.
Further, different countries are at varied levels of research and development, with diverse capacities of development and implementation of requisite laws and regulations. In cases where these laws are in place, progressing from research to commercialization has been a challenge. In addition, other countries are taking sudden political decisions that are affecting the progress of biotechnology applications. Notably, the opportunity costs for delayed adoption of biotech crops in developing countries, comprising COMESA member states, is estimated at US$45.5 billion.
Fortunately, there is still hope. Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi and Sudan are countries within COMESA that have made tremendous progress in GM crop research and commercialization. Their approach and experience will benefit other member states to swiftly progress from research to commercialization, which will be key in expanding the regional market.
Sustainable partnerships for unlocking the bottlenecks
In 2018, ASARECArebranded and repositioned itself as a convener, partnership broker and coordinator of agricultural research for development (AR4D) in eastern and central Africa. This has strategically positioned the Association to spearhead critical interventions geared towards increased productivity for socio-economic growthin the region.
Leveraging on itsexperience with the Regional Approach to Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (RABESA) project that led to the development of the COMESA Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, ASARECA is already on the forefront of enabling the implementation of COMBIP in collaboration with other key players in COMESA region. This collaboration is critical in building capacity and sharing expertise, resources, and synergies among different stakeholders in the region.
In 2019, ASARECA and COMESA revised their existing MoU to boost collaboration in agricultural research and extension by utilizing existing national agricultural research and extension institutions for the benefit of the Common Market, thus enabling agricultural research in the region to play a leading role in promoting market/income generation-oriented agriculture.
As COMESA’s technical arm to drive agricultural research for development in the region, ASARECA is now calling upon stakeholders for a coordinated approach at country and regional levels to work together towards promoting food security and nutrition by embracing modern biotechnology and biosafety practices.
We are advocating for systems to build institutional capacity to enable African scientists, research centers and technology developers to offer relevant solutions in line with the region’s needs. Building the capacity for biosafety regulation and demand driven regional biotechnology research requires sustainable partnerships, to provide the much-needed timely and reliable data on GM commodity imports and monitoring of production and movement of GM crops.
This is why ASARECA, working with like-minded partners such as the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, seeks to improve the adoption of agricultural biotechnology and biosafety practices. We plan to do this through communications, outreach and capacity building of key stakeholders including farmers, researchers, regulators, policy makers, and consumers in member states. ASARECA and ISAAA AfriCenter have signed a memorandum of agreement (MoA) that will see the latter help in enhancing the communication skills of researchers for bridging the gap between science and society
The Future is Bio
The negative effects of climate change, pests and diseases, inaccessible markets and rapid population amongst other factors threaten food and nutrition security in Africa, with over 256 million people facing undernutrition.
ASARECA, however, believes that highly inclusive sustainable agricultural transformation in eastern and central Africa is plausible with the adoption of biotechnology and functional biosafety systems. For research to move from laboratories to farm and markets, different sector players must leverage science and digital technologies to adapt agriculture and food systems to the numerous changes threatening millions of livelihoods.
We must work together with member states, development partners, implementing agencies and other sub-regional research organizations to appreciate the role of science and technology in sustaining Africa’s food and nutrition security. It is urgent and imperative to harmonize the laws and regulations to facilitate the adoption of modern agricultural biotechnology and biosafety.
Prof. Jean Jacques M. Muhinda is Executive Director, Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA). You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org