As elsewhere, globalization, trade liberalization and deregulation, and the privatization of agricultural R&D lie at the heart of the push of GM technologies into Africa. Africa’s receptiveness is shaped by concerns about food insecurity, growing poverty and inadequate nutrition as well as declining public agricultural research budgets and capacity.

Figure 4: GM status in Africa Declining public sector African agricultural research, combined with the privatization of agricultural research, has led to a focus on providing hi-tech solutions, including transgenics, over other agricultural options (Scoones 2005). Globally-driven agricultural research and technology development, which defines Africa’s food security problems as being primarily about yield, poses the “quick fix” of GM crops as particularly attractive. The multiple stressors that are driving food insecurity, including the interplay between inadequate access to water, poor soil fertility, climate change, inadequate infrastructure, weak markets, poverty, HIV/AIDS and civil war, are inadequately taken into account in developing solutions. The shortcomings of such an approach and the value of interlinkages in problem analysis as well as in defining solutions are discussed in Chapter 8: Interlinkages: The Environment and Policy Web.

Although human development, food security and environmental health issues are often the focus of the marketing strategies of the main R&D companies, it is unlikely that such altruistic concerns are driving their investment. The developing world, including Africa, is an important potential market, as consumer and producer, given that Europe is not receptive to GM products and that more than 70 per cent of Africa’s people are engaged in agricultural production (IFAD 2001).

The high level of investment needed in GM research and its application has constrained African participation and has led to research that primarily focuses on developed country needs. Transgenic research is very expensive when compared to more traditional biotechnology techniques. For example, the IRMA project is estimated to have cost US$6 million over 5 years and the transgenic sweet potato research US$2 million, compared to the average funding of tissue culture and marker technology projects costing on average US$300 000 (Odame and others 2003).

Box 5: Intellectual Property Rights: potential conflicts and opportunities for resolution

Intellectual Property Rights affect how financial benefits are distributed. The approaches of the WTO and the CBD are quite different:

  • The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) asserts IPR on life form, while the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) asserts national sovereignty and thus by implication the right to prohibit IPR on life forms.
  • The CBD promotes equitably shared benefits from use of biological resources and protection of traditional knowledge; TRIPS promotes the private appropriation of benefits and has no mechanism for acknowledging the role of traditional knowledge in the industrial use of genetic resources.

However there are some opportunities for reconciling these differences:

  • Article 1 of TRIPS provides some flexibility, allowing domestic law to exceed minimum protection standards, a provision that could allow member nations to enact legislation to protect traditional knowledge.
  • Article 27.2 of TRIPS allows for the exclusion from patent ability based on public order or morality.
  • Article 27.3b of TRIPS allows for the development of unique IPR protection systems for plants, animals and essentially biological processes, creating an opportunity to develop alternative IPR regimes appropriate to the needs and conditions of traditional communities.

Sources: CBD 1992, Shrine and others 2000, ESA 1998

The absence of a supportive policy and legal framework is often cited as an inhibiting factor for the development of biotechnology. On the one hand, biotechnology companies may be reluctant to invest in costly research without the legal guarantee that they will be able to commercialize their products (Seshia 2002) Supportive legislative frameworks for research include not only clear rules for risk assessment and commercialization but also intellectual property rights (IPR) (Yamin 2003). Although IPR standards have been developed through the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), domestic IPR legislation in many African countries remains weak. Many countries struggle with how to reconcile IPRs with farmers’ rights and other local interests. There are concerns that strong IPRs will entrench global domination of world food production by a few companies and increased dependence on industrialized nations. IPR may place restrictions on farmers, including on their existing rights to store and exchange seed. Some of the challenges regarding IPR are discussed in Box 5. On the other hand, in some instances the absence of a legal framework has encouraged research as biotechnology companies can act with few restraints and responsibilities. For example, in 1998 Monsanto engaged in the planting of GM crops in Zimbabwe as there was no regulation, although these crops were subsequently destroyed when the government established what had happened (Glover 2003a).

At a national and regional level, the lack of adequately inclusive policy processes has contributed to a polarized GM debate. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, civil society has been increasingly recognized as an important partner in the development of environmental policy and practice. Civil society organizations, globally and within Africa, have been very active in claiming this space around issues related to genetic modification. A range of concerns has been raised related to the debates around human health and biosafety as well as to the socioeconomic implications, especially as they relate to issues of food security, livelihoods and human well-being. As discussed in Chapter 1: The Human Dimension, an increasing number of intergovernmental African agencies, international organizations and national governments are recognizing the value of such approaches. For example, Benin has established a five-year national moratorium on the importation, commercialization and utilization of all GM products or products derived from GMOs to give the country time to effectively debate, develop and implement national biosafety legislation (GRAIN 2004).

People accept
new technologies
because they
believe the potential
benefits outweigh
the potential risks.

CBD and UNEP 2003

Another set of concerns relating to policy-making processes is the growing influence of the scientific and private sector in policy development and how to balance this with public concerns. Issues of public trust, accountability and transparency, as well as farmers’ and consumers’ rights, underlie much of this.

In many arenas, public objection to and concerns about GMOs are important constraints to GM research and the commercialization of GM products. Globally, these concerns focus on health and environmental implications. These concerns stem from the continuing high levels of uncertainty around impacts and risks as well as the poor dissemination and communication of available information. No technology or human activity is completely risk-free; people accept new technologies because they believe the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks (CBD and UNEP 2003). Public mistrust of private sector motives resulting from past private sector behaviour in potentially risky areas such as tobacco, pharmaceuticals and chemicals is also a factor (Mohamed-Katerere 2003). Some are concerned about possible dumping by companies or nations in efforts to dispose of surplus stocks or to recoup the cost of R&D. In Southern Africa, some governments have expressed similar concerns about GM food aid (Mohamed-Katerere 2003). In Africa, public concerns have revolved around ethical issues, food security and livelihood concerns, farmers’ and consumer rights, and non-inclusive policy processes. Farmers’ organizations in West African countries have, in voicing their objection to the introduction of GM crops, focused on a range of factors that undermine the productive agricultural sector, including European Union (EU) and US cotton subsidies, and are beginning to look more critically at the dominant model of cotton production, questioning the need for chemical inputs and looking for means to reduce their dependence on cotton (GRAIN 2004). Researchers and farmers are successfully rebuilding agricultural practices based on farmer knowledge and local resources that greatly reduce the use of pesticides (GRAIN 2004).

Given the magnitude of what is at stake, these concerns remain, despite the policy and regulatory frameworks on environment and biosafety developed under the CBD in 1992 and its Cartagena Protocol in 2000, which specifically regulates the transboundary movement of living modified organisms.