Africa's GM crop debate

GMO Safety: What are the advantages of such collaboration?

Makara: When commercialisation of GM crops takes place, a joint assessment will help handle trans-border movements of these crops. In this case, it is central that capacity constraints of individual countries pose no hindrance and that COMESA can help all countries move forward at the same speed. In any case, the final decision with regard to the commercialisation of GM crops remains within each country.

Makinde: Biosafety harmonisation is currently not only going on in the COMESA but also in the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States). In fact the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) started the process of harmonisation before other regional economic communities came on board. Harmonisation makes sense but you can only harmonise when we all have a good understanding of the issues and all have laws governing biosafety.

GMO Safety: Leaving out regulation, crops that play no role in overseas trade would be accepted more easily?

Makara: Of course there are a number of crops that are not exported to Europe, but the crops that are associated with the popularisation of biotechnology – major crops such as cotton or maize – have a lot of linkages with Europe. On the other hand, not much has been done in the past with regard to traditional crops like bananas or cassava. But more research is taking place on local crops and when, with time, people see that these crops address problems they have, the crops stand a chance of being commercialised.

GMO Safety: Why did it take so long for these crops to be developed?

Makara: If you look at the technology itself and the period in which the first GM crops were commercialised in 1996, you see that it took a lot of time to develop these varieties like cotton and maize. Developing a new variety is not a matter of one or two years; whether the development is through GM technology or through conventional technology, it naturally takes long time. So I don’t think that these new local GM crops have been particularly delayed in their development. On the contrary, for some crop trials have already been conducted and so we hope that in the next few years – five, seven years – some varieties can be commercialised.

Makinde: Many farmers are eagerly waiting for governments to do the needful to introduce GM crops since, as part of the “seeing is believing” concept, they have done study tours to countries that adopted the technology. They would like to access and assess the technology themselves for their own particular commodity. In many African countries the private sector is already putting in place mechanisms to makes the seeds affordable to farmers. But infrastructure is still a big bottleneck in Africa, biotech or no biotech.

GMO Safety: Given the bottlenecks and hurdles for their introduction, why this focus on GM crops?

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