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Genetic Engineering and Biosafety
Issues for Africa
Mariam Mayet
Biowatch, Environmental Lawyer


Genetic Engineering in Food and Agriculture and Biosafety: Issues for Africa

Paper presented at Globe Southern Africa Conference On Environmental Security in Africa, Partnerships for Sustainability II, 21-22 September 2000, on behalf of Biowatch South Africa

I have been asked by Biowatch South Africa, to deliver this presentation on their behalf. I am grateful for this opportunity and thank both Biowatch and the conference organisers. The presentation will be delivered in three parts. The first briefly provides some background information on the technology. The second part focuses on the key ideological and social justice issues arising from the deployment of the technology in the agricultural systems in Africa. This is done with the purpose of highlighting the urgent need for regional and national policy. The third part sketches a few key issues of relevance to biosafety for Africa.

What is genetic engineering of crop plants?

Until recently, the use of biotechnology in agriculture was directed at using organisms or its products to produce new products for example, plant or animal breeding. Genetic selection or modification was performed at the organism level. However, a new biotechnology has been developed, namely, genetic engineering, which operates on the molecular and cellular level.

Genetic engineering of crop plants involves the use of technology to artificially transfer genes across species lines. This process is fundamentally different from traditional plant breeding because the technology moves genetic material between completely unrelated plant species, and even between the plant, animal and microbial kingdoms in ways that could never be found in nature. Whilst identification of the gene to be transferred is precise, the process of inserting it in the new host is often imprecise. Genes are moved with something that is the molecular equivalent of a shotgun. Scientists coat tiny particles with genetic material and then "shoot" these genes into thousands of cells in a petri dish before they get one where the desired trait takes and is expressed.

However, actions of genes are unpredictable. Scientists are uncertain where in the receiving plant’s genome (all of genes, taken together), a new gene will find a home or what impacts it would have on the plant. Since a gene may control several different traits in a plant, it is entirely possible that a gene could change a plant’s genome in an unforeseen manner.

Key issues arising out of the use of genetic engineering in agriculture for Africa:

Genetic engineering is offered to Africa by those that control the technology namely, the large transnational "pesticide" corporations or the so called "Gene Giants"- Monsanto, Novartis (a merger of Ciba-Geigy and Sondoz), AstraZeneca (merger of Sweden’s Astra and United Kingdom’s Zeneca), Aventis (a merger of Rhone Pulenc Hoecht, which now owns biotech firm AgroEvo)- as a solution to alleviate poverty and stave off hunger. Indeed, Monsanto has been aggressive in promoting the use of the genetically engineered crops for small- scale farmers in Africa through the so-called Makhatini Experience, the results of which, have still not been made available to the public, despite repeated requests in this regard.

Currently, the genetically engineered or transgenic crops being grown are of two types-the first is a herbicide resistant crop- specifically engineered to resist the spraying of herbicides and the other, is an insect resistant crop-specially engineered to behave like a pesticide because the gene Bacillus Thuringiensis, a soil bacteria, has been inserted into a particular plant’s genome.

The new traits in the crops are ostensibly designed to offer farmers reduced production costs or increased ease of crop management by lowering the need to control pests, reducing labour costs, allowing a shift to cheaper chemicals and generally, simplifying pest control.

On the face of it, these seem to be exciting innovations. However, on closer inspection, one finds that not only is the rationale underpinning the introduction of genetic engineering as a means to alleviate poverty, conceptually and fundamentally flawed, but also it brings with it, new dangers that may have devastating socio-economic implications.

1) Hunger and malnutrition has little to do with how efficiently food is produced or how much food there is available for consumption. Indeed, hunger and malnutrition are rooted in socio-economic realities such as poverty which limits people’s ability to access food in the market or on land, the means to acquire food and other resources to produce food, access to a clean and healthy environment, health care and education. Poverty alleviation requires structural political, social and economic changes involving for example, equitable land redistribution, gender reform, access to education and training and other resources necessary, to ensure food security. To this extent, genetic engineering is offered by the Gene Giants as a "techno" or "quick fix" as opposed to the kind of intervention needed to address poverty and food security issues in Africa.

2) The transgenic crops, which are currently being offered, namely, transgenic maize, canola, soy and cotton, will not assist in staving off hunger in Africa. South Africa is the only country in Africa that has commercialised not one but three transgenic food crops, namely, Bt maize and cotton and cotton genetically engineered to resist herbicides. Soy and canola are also being tested in open field trials. The point is that modified soy and maize are used mainly in livestock production and processed foods; modified canola is pressed into oil and used in processed foods; and cotton is used for its fiber and oil. These uses are not beneficial to combating hunger. Moreover, herbicide resistant crops are not helpful to poor farmers who rely on manual labour to weed because they cannot afford herbicides. As a result, the immediate markets for transgenic crops in Africa are not the subsistence farmers but the larger farming operations, which may produce for export rather than local consumption.

3) Research priorities are out of step with what Africa requires from crop traits. Small scale and subsistence farmers require varieties that are responsive to low levels of soil fertility, crops that are tolerant of saline or drought conditions and other stresses of marginal lands, improved varieties not dependent on agrochemical inputs for increased yields, varieties that are compatible with small, diverse, capital-poor farm settings. The current transgenic crops involves the insertion of a single gene, whereas, the complex traits required to produce the varieties needed, is far too complex and beyond the reach of the technology.

4) The implications arising out of biotechnology intellectual property rights or privatisation of germ plasma raises huge ideological and social justice issues. The biotechnology industry collectively has at least 36 patents that either control seed germination or other essential plant processes. Patenting these traits also involves patenting the plants that contain these traits, and hence, others must pay for the right to use them. This also means that farmers will not be allowed to save these seeds. The household food security implications for small-scale farmers in Africa who depend on farm saved seeds from previous harvests are enormous.

Biosafety: key issues for Africa

Because of the current lack of scientific knowledge concerning the effects of the current engineered genes once they are released into the environment, it is not always possible to anticipate the long-term hazards or quantify the harm. Moreover, the magnitude and scope of the consequences to human and animal health and ecosystems may be very serious and the effects irreversible, even if the probability of the risk occurring is low.

It is therefore critically important that an adequate biosafety regime with stringent mechanisms and controls are put in place to:

a) evaluate the probability and seriousness of the potential harm; and

b) prevent harm to the environment and human health by regulating the import, field trials, commercial releases and contained use (e.g. laboratory experiments) of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Many countries in Africa are Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD specifically addresses the potential risks associated with genetic engineering. Article 8(g) states that- "each contracting party shall as far as possible and as appropriate: Establish or maintain means to regulate, manage or control the risks associated with the use and release of living modified organisms resulting from biotechnology which are likely to have adverse environmental impacts that could affect the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account, the risks to human health."

A few countries in Africa have biosafety legislation. It is, however, beyond the scope of this presentation to deal with these regimes. However, it is important that the following issues be noted:

1. Biosafety legislation should not come into effect ex post facto, as in the case with South Africa, where almost 165 applications for field trials and two commercial releases were granted, before the Genetically Modified Organisms Act came into operation. There is a danger that this scenario may be replicated in other African countries where governments are poorly resourced and pressurised into accepting the introduction of the technology into their food production systems.

2. National and indeed regional policy on the introduction of transgenic crops into agricultural and consumption systems are urgently necessary. As its first task, the policy process should require comprehensive cost-benefit analysis and investigate how best to ensure access to adequate food by the poor.

3. Governments must take on the responsibility that goes with adoption of this technology, namely, public consultation and awareness programmes, capacity building of government officials to properly regulate and monitor GMOs, establishment of advisory committees made up of a multi-disciplinary team of experts etc and stringent biosafety laws based on the precautionary principle and rigorous risk assessment.

4. During January 2000, in Montreal, the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted, after almost 6 years of grueling negotiations. Several African countries, but excluding South Africa, have already signed the Protocol. It is a specially tailored international environmental agreement to regulate and control the current unrestricted trade in GMOs. The protocol on the whole, represents an enabling framework for the crafting of domestic biosafety legislation on the part of developing countries to protect biodiversity and human health.

During the 5th Conference of the Parties of the CBD, the African group made a call to African governments to harmonise their implementation of the protocol and the avoidance of hasty releases into the environment until such time as the Protocol has come into force and Africa has an agreed biosafety system in place and there is clarity regarding the steps to be taken to ensure safety.

Implicit in the call for uniformity on the continent regarding the implementation of the protocol, is that Africa constitutes one land mass and since organisms recognise no boundaries, releases made in one country would easily find their way across to other countries. The process of putting an Africa-wide biosafety system in place is being mobilised under the auspices of the Organisation of African Unity.

The final issue I want to address is the Precautionary principle and its application in biosafety policy in Africa. The Precautionary principle was clearly recognised during the United Nation’s Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Principle is now firmly entrenched in the Biosafety Protocol. The range of interpretation of the precautionary principle varies from sector to sector, and indeed, from continent to continent. There are also, very little by way of practical guidelines for its implementation. In the context of genetic engineering, the potential dangers arising from the technology and the transgenic crop plants are known, but science evaluation is unable to precisely determine the risks. It is important for Africa to determine what the precautionary principle means and how it is to be applied using its own socio-economic and scientific criteria and imperatives. These could range from establishing an unacceptable/acceptable level of risk; conducting of cost-benefit analysis; review of decisions in the light of new scientific evidence; the conducting of independent risk assessments etc.


It is clear that genetic engineering poses many problems for Africa-and these are serious enough to warrant a pause in the deployment of this new and untested technology. There is a great deal of work to be done-urgently. In this regard, I have tried to highlight the possible opportunities for intervention and collaboration. However, these issues are only a few key issues. The whole range of the implications arising from this technology must be properly assessed and debated. Governments in Africa particularly, have to date, made the fatal error of relying almost exclusively on the expert advice of biotechnologists-who know less than nothing about the politics of poverty. Certainly, experts must inform national and regional policies but these must be multi-disciplinary and independent experts-i.e. experts with no vested interests in the deployment of the technology. Governments also have the obligation to ensure transparency and a high degree of public participation by making information about this technology accessible to the general public and indeed, place the issues squarely in the public domain.