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Africa Needs High-Level Biotechnology

Attending and participating in the “FAO Regional Meeting Biotech Conference for Africa” was a great opportunity to meet and interact with all different types of people—Governmental and Non-Governmental representatives, scientists, farmers, the private sector and civil society organizations–and others. It was also a learning experience on the inconsistencies present in this community. 

The forum, and especially its organisers (the principal one being the FAO), had to tread lightly so as not to be “misunderstood” by anti-GMO activists. However, the Ethiopian Government made it abundantly clear from the opening session that it is advancing its biotech science from the lowest levels all the way up to the highest ones. The FAO, on the other hand, exhibited on-the-fence messaging, which sounded to some of us in the meetings that, in short, it is seriously considering only biotechnologies of the low-and-medium level, with little or no mention of higher-level applications in molecular biology & genetic engineering. To me, this world body indirectly undermines these high-level biotechnological opportunities for Africa.

But the non-committal position on modern biotech by the global agency in charge of food and agriculture does not surprise me, as in 2013 the FAO Director-General cautioned Uganda about GMOs while on a visit. At that time, we were in the heat of a polarized debate on the then National Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, and the remarks of a person of his standing and position, when captured by the media, sent shivers to policy-makers and the general public. (Read more about this here.)

On the other hand, activists in Addis sponsored and spread the narrative that Africa should focus only on adopting low-and-medium-level biotechnologies! Vocal consumer activists, especially an Ethiopian one, all throughout the meeting, condemned GMOs, peddling an anti-GMO stance! At the back of my mind, I thought this was in sharp contrast to what their Government and the Agriculture Minister told this forum in his official opening remarks. 

Farmers, farmers organisations, and scientists, meanwhile, mainly expressed interest in pursuing across-the-board-biotechnologies.

Recommendations were adopted on the need for Africa to provide an enabling environment (including conducive infrastructure), human and financial capacities, and policy and institutional frameworks to build biotechnologies. 

Of course, on the ground, rates and levels of growth vary from one country to another. As communicators, we need strategic approaches to public education and knowledge empowerment, for grassroots as well as for “grass-tops,” regarding the understanding, appreciation and embracement of biotechnologies in agriculture.   

– Peter Wamboga-Mugirya, The Science Foundation for Livelihoods & Development (SCIFODE), Uganda

This reflection is one in a series written by participants of the FAO Regional Biotech Conference for Africa held in Addis Ababa on November 22-24, 2017. 


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