Risk is different from cost because, on the one hand, a certain level of risk is necessary for social, political and economic advancement and, on the other, risk is by its nature uncertain. The challenge in the area of GM is that risks posed by this technology are fundamentally different from those posed by earlier agricultural technologies. The range of uncertainties is greater than ever before and includes fundamental scientific uncertainties and ignorance about the potential environmental and health risks, as well as wider uncertainties about the impact on agricultural systems and rural livelihoods (Scoones 2002). The importance of recognizing uncertainties and ignorance is evident from the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) crisis, or mad cow disease, which resulted in major economic and health costs in the UK and Europe. Classical assessment approaches which treat scientific aspects separately from ethical, moral, social and economic considerations may be inappropriate and have been widely criticized over many years (Scoones 2002). In this context of uncertainty, other approaches, including the precautionary approach, can be a valuable part of risk assessment. Taking a precautionary approach requires acknowledging the potential for unforeseen consequences, complex effects and ignorance (Scoones 2002). The precautionary approach offers the opportunity to address normative values of justice, fairness and responsibility which classical risk assessment does not do (Mohamed- Katerere 2003).

A further challenge for risk assessment processes is that the range of actors in the development of new policy making and the negotiation process of regulatory and policy frameworks is wider than ever before: it includes global institutions, multinational companies, NGOs, governments and intergovernmental bodies, scientists and farmers acting at and across national, regional and global levels. This highlights the need for deliberative participatory processes over simple consultation. Participation is successful when it promotes responsiveness to local and national needs, legitimacy and “ownership” of policy and law. Thus, the processes for participation need to be appropriate and relevant to the country concerned (Glover 2003b). Many African countries have recognized this: participatory approaches have been used in policy development in relation to national law and policy development.

Current risk assessment processes are closely allied to globalization in which individual (R&D, economic and propriety) rights trump social and cultural rights and concerns; these issues are assumed to be adequately addressed through the market and consumer choice (Mohamed-Katerere 2003).

A range of approaches that deal with such complex decision making have been developed which recognize the plurality of views as well as a level of uncertainty and ignorance. These include quantitative approaches designed to examine the multicriteria important in decision making, scenario approaches which systematically analyse future options, and deliberative participatory approaches; these approaches introduce rigour not by limiting the issues under consideration but by being transparent and addressing the full complexity of the issues (Scoones 2002).


The introduction of GMOs has brought new challenges for authorities and policymakers who have to consider impacts on human health, poverty and hunger, livelihoods and food security, free trade and international markets, and the environment, particularly biodiversity. Laws and institutions need to ensure that an acceptable trade-off between competing and often conflicting interests is maintained. As GMO technology is relatively new, governance systems are also in their infancy and have not been able to take all these challenges on board.

Africa is responding to these challenges at multiple levels. It has supported initiatives at the global level such as the CBD and its Cartagena Protocol. It has developed cutting-edge solutions at the regional level such as the African Union’s (AU) Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology (African Biosafety Model Law) and has begun to develop national frameworks for GMO development and biosafety. The AU has also adopted a Model Law for the Protection of the Rights of Local Communities, Farmers, Breeders and Regulation of Access to Biological Resources.

The AU’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) promotes an integrated multilevel response to the challenges of agriculture. This framework should serve as the basis for developing agricultural strategies. As the Millennium Task Force on Science and Technology cautions, technology cannot of itself determine social change but it can be a useful tool when aligned with development goals and when supporting governance structures are created (UN Millennium Project 2005b).