Southern Africa Urged To be Cautious of Biotechnology
27 August 2000
by Tinashe Madava
Biotechnology can increase efficiency in farming and ensure food security, but some scientists in the region have urged caution when implementing policies governing its use.
Biotechnology is the use of biological processes to develop various products using a wide range of techniques involving the use and manipulation of living organisms. These products can then be commercially exploited.
It includes genetic engineering where genes are transferred and isolated to give certain super varieties of the end-product. Some of the most common techniques are tissue or cell culture, cloning and fermentation methods, cell fusion and embryo transfer as well as gene technology (genetic engineering). Biotechnology is also used in producing antibiotics and fast-maturing varieties of crops.
Scientists attending a recent symposium on "Food Biotechnology: Facts, and the Future" in Midrand, South Africa, organised by Africabio, a non-governmental organisation, pointed out that there is need to put in place bio-safety systems at national and international levels.
The scientists agreed that well-functioning safety systems are composed of guidelines, which involve peoples' concerns, have a review process and provide feedback.
Since most countries in the region have not started bio-safety programmes, the symposium agreed that guidelines should also be scientific, transparent and flexible. There is a need to build competence and confidence in the people involved.
Addressing the symposium, Dr John Kilama, president of the Global Biodiversity Institute based in the US said Africa must be involved in the scientific evaluation of biotechnology because if it is not, the continent may miss the benefits that may come with the technology.
Africans can, and should, influence the biotechnology debate by first getting involved in the technology, participants noted. Many countries and institutions use the guidelines developed by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and recent advances in biotechnology to implement bio-prospecting programmes that benefit the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources.
Kilama cited the pharmaceutical industry, which has benefited from biodiversity through drugs developed from natural compounds while agricultural industry improves crops by breeding them with wild relatives.
Dianne Terblanche of the Consumer Institute of South Africa said that if biotechnology is to be harnessed in the region as a way to increase food security, any danger to the consumer must be addressed first before biotech products are released for consumption.
She stressed people's right to choose, be informed, and to be protected. Terblanche pointed out that for the benefit of the consumer, education and information campaigns should precede such technology.
Terblanche raised the emotions of the supporters of biotechnology when she stressed that even in the developed world, scientists are arguing on both sides of the debate. She called for a rethink about the immediate release of biotech foods in the region until more research and education campaigns can be held in developing countries.
Florence Wambugu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications based in Nairobi, argued that the anticipated increase in agricultural productivity must be achieved without adverse effects to the environment, depletion of natural resources and within sustainable agricultural development.
"Biotechnology is expected to impact [the agricultural] sector by enabling the development of crops resistant to pests and diseases, enhanced food value and control of post harvest loses, thus increasing and improving agricultural productivity." Wambugu also said that this would contribute to reduced use of toxic chemical pesticides and a safer environment.
Amid an intense debate, some scientists voiced the need for education and ecological monitoring in southern Africa.
Although food security is of high priority in the region, there is need for a strategic precautionary approach and adequate risk assessments in southern Africa before the adoption of biotechnology. (SARDC ).