Box 7: Doing the right thing is not simple

Governments cannot achieve biosafety on their own; they need the active involvement and cooperation of other stakeholders:

  • Agricultural and health-care research institutes and the biotechnology industry can play a particularly important role. Biotechnology researchers and companies have the expertise, the resources and the incentive for keeping biotechnology and its products safe and beneficial.
  • Civil society, individual citizens and nongovernmental organizations need to understand the issues and make their views clear to both policymakers and industry.
  • The media have a vital watchdog role to play.

Because biotechnology is such a revolutionary science, and has spawned such a powerful industry, it has great potential to reshape the world around us. It is already changing agriculture and what many of us eat. Any major mistakes could lead to tragic and perhaps permanent changes in the natural world. For these reasons, future generations are likely to look back to our time and either thank us or curse us for what we do – or don’t do – about GMOs and biosafety.

Doing the right thing is not simple.

Source: CBD and UNEP 2003

There are a wide range of responses, at multiple levels, to the growing challenges posed by the development of GM technologies and products. These include global and regional intergovernmental responses, science-based responses and civil society initiatives. As a whole, the overall approach of African governments has been to encourage a range of biotechnology research (both transgenic and non-transgenic) while recognizing biosafety concerns and establishing systems to limit its impact.

Biosafety approaches have been shaped by the worldwide acknowledgement of the growing threats which ecosystems and biodiversity face from human activity, and the long-term implications this has for development and human well-being. The CBD secretariat along with UNEP for example notes:

“The stakes are high: although some 40% of the world economy is derived directly from biological diversity, humanity is pushing ecosystems, species and gene pools to extinction faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago. At present, natural habitats and ecosystems are being destroyed at the rate of over 100 million ha every year. More than 31 000 plant and animal species are threatened with extinction; according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, at least one breed of livestock dies out every week. Band-aids are not enough: only a fundamental and far-reaching solution can ensure a biologically rich world for future generations” (CBD and UNEP 2003).

The range of actors involved in policy development has increased dramatically. Governments, scientists, the private sector and civil society have all become active players. The extent to which the concerns and interests of these respective groups are acknowledged varies between countries and across issues. However, as Box 7 shows, given the complexity of the issues and the risks associated with them, a growing number of policymakers, at the national, regional and global levels, are acknowledging the importance of inclusive policy processes. Box 8 looks at one initiative that brings together stakeholders at the regional level. Annex 3, Table 1 shows some of the national, sub-regional and regional organizations active in biotechnology issues.

Box 8: The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum

The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) is a not-for-profit and non-sectarian organization funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). It provides a platform for sharing, debating, and understanding issues pertaining to biotechnology in agriculture, health, industry and the environment. The African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum represents stakeholders in biotechnology in Africa. It currently has individual members in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Africa, Ghana and Nigeria; small and medium sized enterprises involved in research, development, testing and commercialization of biotechnology in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda and Ghana. Through its membership and linkages, ABSF is a voice for many biotechnology stakeholders, including farmers, scientists, consumers, politicians and government bodies.

The ABSF objectives are to:

  • Provide a forum for sharing and exchanging experiences and practices in biotechnology with a view to strengthening its application for increased food security, health improvement, poverty alleviation, industrialization and environmental conservation in Africa.
  • Improve public understanding of biotechnology through provision of accurate and balanced information to consumers, media and policymakers to ensure that biotechnology is accurately represented at all levels of society.
  • Explore innovative and appropriate biotechnology applications and facilitate their adoption and use in sustainable development and poverty alleviation in Africa.
  • Build capacity for information generation, dissemination and wise use of biotechnology.
  • Facilitate research, development, education and training on biotechnology as well as policy and infrastructure development for meeting Africa’s needs in biotechnology.

Source: ABSF undated