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Local Scientists Snub The West In Biotech War
"Need For Biotechnology In Africa Is Very Clear"

Africa News Service
By Catherine Mgendi
October 21, 1999

Nairobi - Kenyan scientists want the country to adopt biotechnology and fight off efforts by the West to keep the region from "the biotechnology benefits bracket." Prof. Norah Olembo, the Director of the Kenya Industrial Property Office, told a recent meeting that discussions held in Japan in the early 1980s, resolved that Africa did not need biotechnology. However, despite the rhetoric that biotech advances are bad for the region, she says 75 per cent of the patent applications to her office were for biotechnologies developed abroad.

The Director of Kari, Dr. Cyrus Ndiritu told of a "dubious" communication he had received from the international environmental lobby group, Greenpeace, in the early 1990s, demanding to know Kari's position and activities on transgenic, or genetically altered, crops. The Director of Kari, Dr. Ndiritu said the West had no authority to determine what Africa should or shouldn't do when they did not know what hunger and starvation were.

A meeting held recently at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) had all the hall marks of a scientific community that was ready to confront the anti- biotechnology crusaders.

The scientists have said the anti-application crusade, is nothing more than a campaign by powerful Western lobbies to have Africa side-lined from benefiting from the biotechnology revolution, Dr. Nderitu told the meeting. At yet another ongoing meeting in Nairobi the executive director of African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) Dr John Mugabe said the debate on biotechnology and its impacts on Africa was full of fallacies and misplaced reality.

"Africa is already in the biotechnology revolution. We should not be debating whether or not the continent should go for the technology but what specific policies and institutions are required to enable Africans to maximise benefits and minimise risks associated with genetic engineering," he said.

They say the on-going debate on the potential hazards of genetically modified crops is aimed at confusing and scaring Africans away from developing their own technologies and capacities "Biotechnology is not a dilemma in Africa," Dr. John Wafula, the head of biotechnology research at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) stated earlier this month. "The need for biotechnology in Africa is very clear and should not be confused with the marketing and food surplus-driven forces of the Western world."

Addressing a meeting organised at the Kari headquarters to unravel the controversy surrounding biotechnology, Dr. Wafula dismissed the notion that Africa's food deficits could be solved by redistribution of food mountains in developed countries. He said: "The notion that food deficits in developing countries can be offset by redistribution of internationally abundant food stocks is more theoretical than practical, and undermines the need for Africa to increase food production.

The scientist argues that the biotechnology debate should not be centred on whether or not Africa needs biotechnology, but rather on how to promote and support its application to improve agricultural production and productivity. Kenyan scientists have in the recent past, raised alarm on covert moves by developed countries, particularly in Europe, to have Africa relegated to the sidelines of biotechnology development.

According to Prof. Norah Olembo, the Director of the Kenya Industrial Properties Office, who told the Kari meeting of similar discussions held in Japan in the early 1980s, which resolved that Africa did not need biotechnology. "This has been an ongoing onslaught to deter us from biotechnology and make us a market for their genetically engineered products," Prof. Olembo said.

Dr. Florence Wambugu of Egerton University has previously cautioned that if the continent was not careful, it would miss out on the benefits of this millennium technology just as was bypassed by the green revolution, and forever be relegated to oblivion. Dr. Wambugu says Western lobby groups are trying to make Africa believe that it would be the target of malicious introduction of biotechnologies because it lacked the capacity to tell good from evil.

Dr. Wafula said while the US-Europe debate was driven by competition for markets and profit maximization motives, biotechnology in Africa hinges on averting mass starvation and alleviating rampant poverty. "Biotechnology development and application must be taken within the context for which Africa is craving - food production and survival."

Dr. Wafula said with a population expected to triple over the next 25 years and an agricultural sector that has maintained a downward trend, Africa would have to seek refuge from biotechnology to fast- forward the production of large amounts of food in order to meet the needs of its peoples. He said as a result of maintaining a low profile in food production, Africa has the lowest per capita food availability in the world.

African farmers, he said, were besieged by high costs of farm inputs and high crop and animal losses due to diseases and pests, providing the rationale for the use of biological technologies, including genetic manipulation, to address these problems.

"The use of high-yielding, disease-resistant and pest-resistant crops would have a direct bearing on improved food security, poverty alleviation and environmental conservation in Africa," Dr. Wafula said.

He said the Government must identify the key national biotechnology priorities in order to ensure that the only research and development activities in biotechnology were undertaken with the limited available national resources. He recommended that the Government also put in place policies and legislation to govern safe and judious application and transfer of biotechnologies, thereby minimising their perceived risks.

Dr. Wafula however cautioned that any biosafety regulations adopted should be accommodative and promotional, rather than restrictive, of biotechnology development, transfer and acquisition. The meeting resolved that awareness and education of the public and policy makers would enhance the continent's position and use of biotechnology.

Most African countries lack the necessary expertise and information to engage in the formulation and implementation of long- term biotechnology policies and laws. At the moment they are merely reacting to political and ethical issues being raised by anti- biotechnology lobbies around the world.

The course will contribute tot he creation of a critical mass of African expertise in biotechnology policy analysis. It may also enlarge the region's ability to participate effectively in the international negotiations on the Protocol on Biosafety.

DR Mugabe encouraged African delegation to the Biosafety Protocol negotiations to argue for provisions that will strengthen their capabilities in biotechnology. He said: "Africa has comparative advantages in biotechnology. These include its enormous genetic diversity and prior scientific knowledge in agriculture. Biotechnology offers new opportunities to transform rural agriculture without undermining local ecologies and socio-economic landscapes".

Governments must now move aggressively to lay down technology policies that enlarge their comparatively advantages and competitiveness in the technology, he said.

ACTS has mobilised international expertise in biotechnology policy and intellectual property protection to five lectures and lead discussions during the course. The international experts include DR Carlienne Brenner, former senior policy analyst in the OECD's agriculture biotechnology programme and Pro Norman Clark Director of the Graduate School of Environmental studies at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland. Others include DR Florence Wambugu, a leading African scientist in genetic engineering, DR Phillippe Cullet an intellectual property protection lawyer in Geneva, Switzerland, and Mr. Denis Rangi, Regional Director of the Commonwealth Agricultural Bureau International (CABI) - Africa.