A sound legal and policy framework for assessing risks and benefits, regulating research, monitoring research and commercialization, as well as protecting rights, is essential. There needs to be complementarity between the various levels of law and policy, from the global to the local, as well as across different sectors (eg agriculture and technology) and different sets of rights (eg IPRs and farmers’ rights).

Box 13: Biotechnology for smallholder farmers

Biotechnology research that is appropriate for smallholder farming includes biotechnologies which:

  • are affordable;
  • do not restrict or prohibit farmers from saving and exchanging seed;
  • are responsive to local livelihood contexts;
  • are appropriate to patterns of labour availability;
  • are suitable for use in a multicrop system;
  • have traits such as increased drought tolerance, nutrient-use efficiency and disease resistance;
  • are suitable and safe for the local ecosystem; and
  • are backed by appropriate support, including access to credit, markets and extension services.

Source: Glover 2003a

Legal frameworks need to recognize key legal principles and rights that are applicable to the development and application of GM technologies. These include precaution; rights to participation and access to information; rights to development as well as a safe and healthy environment; IPRs, indigenous knowledge and farmers’ rights; and issues of legal responsibility. Useful measures that can support an effective legal framework could include labelling and risk assessment and management. For traceability of GM products, country of origin labelling should be fully enforced also for the purposes of record-keeping and informing the public who can then make a choice whether or not to use the products.

Although, under WTO agreements, countries need to adopt IPR legislation, in doing so they have a fair amount of latitude. They need to tailor IPR legislation so that it supports them in achieving their development objectives. They can address concerns about domination of world food production by, for example, excluding plants and animals from patent protection. Farmers can be protected by explicitly allowing them to save, re-use and exchange harvested seed. There may be a need to engage and negotiate with multinational corporations through their global federations (such as Crop Life International). Lessons can be learnt from the experience of countries such as India which have succeeded in attracting investment in this area while at the same time protecting the interests of small farmers.


Building capacity in biosafety is a broad task. It includes training individuals in the scientific, legal and policy aspects of risk assessment as well as enhancing research capacity. There needs to be capacity-building of existing institutional talent and establishment of sound research, development, and extension, marketing and monitoring units. Efforts to foster cooperation and scientific advisory committees at sub-regional levels are encouraged.

Agricultural research throughout Africa has yielded high returns financially and improved livelihoods. However, today agricultural research is under threat from decreasing capacity as a result of inadequate government investment and a series of externally imposed conditionalities (Scoones 2005). Privately-driven R&D has been unable to fill this gap and it is crucial that Africans increase investment in research systems.

Partnership is central to building capacity in R&D. The application of modern biotechnology to agricultural research systems across the developing world calls for new investments, changes in resource allocations and new responsibilities for policymakers, research managers and scientists alike. Improving research capacity through developing partnerships, to solve local problems, with institutions that have advanced technologies, human resources, laboratory infrastructure and funds for routine administrative work are necessary. African countries might benefit from the pooling of resources for R&D of GMO technologies. Where patentable products are developed, there will be a need for serious consideration on the subsequent equitable utilization of the accrued income. African countries need to increase their own investment in capacity-building.

The application of biosafety principles serves to minimize the risks of GM technologies. Agenda 21, and the CBD and its Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2000) are international instruments that address biosafety issues. Many African nations do not have the capacity to implement this protocol; they lack capacity in terms of expertise, equipment, infrastructure, legislation and regulatory systems (Diouf 2001).

Capacity needs to be built to enable African countries to engage more effectively in global policy fora so that multilateral instruments do not compromise Africa’s interests.