The food emergency in 2002-03 in Southern Africa presented to the world a controversy that had been latent on the continent since the 1990s in relation to the introduction of biotechnology in Africa. When a number of countries suffering from food shortages rejected genetically-modified grain as food aid, the highly polarized debate was brought to the spotlight. Pro-biotech and anti-biotech activists heatedly argued on the role of modern biotechnology in the economic transformation and sustainable development of Africa, often leaving out African policymakers and the public opinion with confusion and uncertainty. The lack of reliable information; the range of political, economic, scientific and ethical issues; and the pressure from interests groups may prevent the concerned countries from accessing the technology.
To enable African countries to make informed choices and establish policies to respond to biotechnology developments, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) jointly established a multiple stakeholder initiative. Through the African Policy Dialogues on Biotechnology (APDB), “African countries can engage in dialogue and develop a consensus on the controversies, risks, challenges and myths surrounding the growth and development of biotechnology in Africa”, explains John Mugabe, the Executive Secretary of the NEPAD’s Science and Technology Forum and chair of the APDB.
The first roundtable meetings of the Dialogues took place in Johannesburg in April 2003, with the Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) the key sub-regional partner. The second meetings, which took place in Harare, Zimbabwe in September 2004, were marked by agreement on a Statement of Commitments, whereby the participants reached consensus on a number of key recommendations; such as: the need to build institutional arrangements to manage intellectual property rights, and to strengthen African countries’ capacities in biotechnology related fields. They also identified future issues of contention.
“The Dialogues are a unique initiative combining carefully managed but highly participatory discussions, encapsulating a wide range of stakeholder groups, and feeding into national and regional policy processes”, outlines Steven Were Omamo, IFPRI researcher. The dialogues are, indeed, closely linked to two important regional initiatives: the NEPAD Expert Panel on Biotechnology that makes recommendations to the African Union’s (AU) ministers of science and technology and Heads of State; and the Biotechnology Advisory Committee recently created by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Council of Ministers for food, agriculture, and natural resources.
An Africa-wide meeting is scheduled for 2005, to coincide with the release of IFPRI and FANRPAN’s book, “Biotechnology, Agriculture, and Food Security in Southern Africa”, edited by Steven Were Omamo and Klaus von Grebmer. The book is a collection of the proceedings and background papers from the Dialogue.
The APDB should be proactive in helping Africa move toward a situation in which it is able to contribute to the global debate on biotechnology, maximize the benefits from the technology, while at the same time addressing the potential risks or concerns emerging with rapid advances in biotechnology.