Africa should invest in modern biotechnology

Every time a meeting is held to discuss biotechnology which includes Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), a question is asked, by a parliamentarian, to a religious leader, to a common man, what is the other side?

This question cannot have only one response because different biotech approaches are applied in developing a GMO. Genes express themselves through protein produced. It is this protein that is a point of concern in case the gene transferred happens to code for a protein that causes allergy, the type found in most nuts.

Through gene mapping, genomes or genetic makeups of several crops are known including those genes that cause allergies in some individuals. This is why the National Biosafety Committee that regulates the development of GM crops is interested in the source of the gene.

Another form of genetic engineering that NARO is applying to improve farmer preferred cassava varieties to resist cassava brown streak disease does not result in the production of a protein.
It simply stops the virus from multiplying to cause a disease and it’s likened to vaccination in poultry and livestock. Another form of genetic engineering method is when the transfer of genes is done within the same species resulting in what is called a Cisgenic plant.

This is similar to cross pollination, the only difference is that, with cross pollination half the genes of one parent combines randomly with half the genes of another parent to form a seed that later develops into a full plant. Cisgenic crop only has one or two genes from that crop of the same species.

Several countries including Uganda responded to the question of the other side by ratifying an international agreement, the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety which was an addition to the earlier Convention on Biological Diversity that sought to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by GMOs resulting from modern biotechnology.

The Cartagena protocol that entered into force in 2003 focuses more on the environment, limiting itself to the living modified organism and less on the safety of products like the ones in our supermarkets. This Biosafety Protocol is based on the precautionary principle and emphasis on use of scientific evidence to inform decision making process.

Uganda passed a Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in 2008 and later drafted and tabled Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill which is about to be taken up by events before it becomes law. We have foods from GM crops in our supermarkets and GM crops which are ready for release had the law been in place.

The National Biosafety Committee (NBC) overseeing the current GM trials operates under Uganda National Council for Science and Technology Act that does not go beyond research. When the law comes into place, NBC or a competent authority will have direct vote to enable them address better the issues of the other side of GMOs.

The European Union, responding to the issues of the other side of GMOs, funded two sets of research. The most recent one from 2001 to 2010, documented in a report titled “A Decade of EU-Funded Research (2001-2010)” cost 200 million Euros, involved 50 projects and 400 research groups.

The first set that was published in 2001 featured 81 projects, and involved more than 400 laboratories. Europe’s strength is in pharmaceutical and Medical Biotechnology and is threatened by USA, China, Brazil and India that are investing heavily in Agricultural Biotechnology.

According to ‘Europe 2020’ strategy, adopted by European council in 2010, one of the seven flagships featured is the creation of ‘Innovation Union’ with a focus on building the bio-economy by 2020. If Europe finds it very important to invest massively in modern biotechnology, why then should Africa lag behind?

Mr Ongu is an agriculturist.
isaacongu@gmail.com

SOURCE: Daily Monitor

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