New study debunks misconceptions about biotech crop research in Africa

Nairobi-Public institutions across Africa are conducting groundbreaking research to produce genetically modified (GM) crops, according to a new study by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

A new IFPRI study presents findings on the development of GM crops by public research institutes in four African countries-Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The first of its kind, this study assesses the state of biotech crop research, the types of genes being used, and the biosafety and regulatory challenges facing Africa.

According to the study, current biotech research has the potential to reduce the use of pesticides, increase drought tolerance, and improve the nutritional value of staple foods. These changes could benefit the environment, improve health, reduce the cost of food, and increase the incomes of poor smallholder farmers throughout Africa.

"Our study reveals the burgeoning role of public biotech crop research in Africa," said Joel I. Cohen, IFPRI Senior Research Fellow and an author of the study. "Corporations are often seen as the only drivers of GM foods, but the reality is that a few African countries, despite their limited financial and technical resources, have vibrant public biotech research programs. This research often targets improvements of indigenous plant varieties relevant for local use by small-scale farmers."

The study documents public biotech research on 20 different crops, including maize, sweet potato, and cowpeas, and focuses on improving resistance to diseases and pests which can devastate yields for farmers in African countries. Nearly three quarters of the genetic materials used in the study come from local plants, which are more suited for local needs and growing conditions. However, most of the public research is still in laboratory, greenhouse, or confined field trials. By contrast, four commercial biotech crops developed by foreign companies are available in South Africa.

"Unfortunately, most African countries lack the expertise, capacity, and funding to develop and comply with biosafety regulatory requirements, and these deficiencies have become more pronounced as they implement the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety," said Idah Sithole-Niang, Professor at the University of Zimbabwe and lead author of the study. "As a result, GM crops remain out of the hands of farmers and their benefits go unrealized."

While previous reports have examined biotech crop research in developing countries, this study is the first to draw the connection between safety and regulatory requirements and specific crops and genetic traits, showing the policy implications of public research. This information will be critical to policymakers for improving biosafety regulation and ensuring safety.

"Most African countries, like many other poor countries, often cannot advance GM crop research because their national policies or regulatory systems are not prepared to deal with safety requirements for approving general use," Cohen explained. "Researchers in African countries need to work together to share information and expertise, and to dialogue with policymakers as to when, where, and if restrictive biosafety policies are needed. As poor countries develop stronger biosafety procedures, they will be increasingly able to manage potential risks associated with GM crops."

Interesting cost of commercialisation comparisons were made between different GMO products, with the cost of testing a corn GMO being US$160 000 in Kenya and a potato GMO US$830 000 in South Africa.

The study recommends an increase in small-scale, confined field trials to test crops, determine safety, and receive feedback from farmers. It also stresses the need to provide decision-makers with science-based biosafety information, so as to improve the clarity of regulatory policies and procedures.

"This study provides critical information that could help bolster Africa's public biotech research and regulation efforts, and potentially improve the livelihoods of poor farmers and consumers," said Patricia Zambrano, IFPRI Research Analyst and an author of the study.

The report concluded that great strides have been made in ensuring an effective regulatory framework for GMO plants in Africa.  There is however room increase cooperation between countries and to form research collaborations.


July 2005