Africa - the new frontier for the GE industry
By Mariam Mayet
African Centre for Biosafety
The Genetic Engineering (GE) industry is facing a shrinking global market as more and more countries adopt biosafety laws and GE labeling regulations. Moreover, as a result of widespread and mounting consumer rejection and the difficulties experienced by Monsanto in obtaining regulatory approval of its GE wheat, it has decided to pull out of the European cereal market.
Africa and Asia are the new frontiers for exploitation by the agro-chemical, seed and GE corporations. The potential for US agri-business to profit from hunger in Africa through, ostensibly the provision of food aid, technical assistance, capital investment, agricultural research and the funding of biosafety initiatives are enormous.
The United State’s Agency for International Development (USAID) is at the forefront of a US marketing campaign to introduce GE food into the developing world. It has made it clear that it sees its role as having to "integrate biotechnology into local food systems and spread the technology through regions in Africa." Through USAID, in collaboration with the GE industry and several groups involved in GE research in the developed world, the US government is funding various initiatives aimed at biosafety regulation and decision-making in Africa, which if successful, will put in place weak biosafety regulation and oversight procedures.
These biosafety initiatives are designed to harmonise Africa's biosafety laws with those of South Africa's. South Africa's Genetically Modified Organisms Act is a poor example of biosafety regulation. It is in effect, merely a permitting system designed to expedite GM imports into the country and releases into the environment. It specifically mandates that biosafety risk assessment involve no more than a paper audit, which entails a review of the 'safety' information generated by the corporations during product development.
USAID is also investing heavily in funding various GE research projects in a bid to take control of African agricultural research.
Biosafety under threat
The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety finally came into force, after years of negotiation, on the 11 September 2003. This international binding environmental agreement is specifically designed to protect human health, the environment and biodiversity from the risks posed by GMOs. It was countries from the South, and the African group in particular, that consistently championed biosafety and won the right for importing countries to ban or severely restrict imports of GMOs in the face of scientific uncertainty, based on the precautionary principle, as sanctioned by the Protocol.
To date, 65 countries have ratified the Protocol, with many more ratifications expected before the first Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol takes place February 2004, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Only 18 countries in Africa have so far ratified the Protocol but many more could be persuaded to do so, in order for them to qualify for one or other of the numerous biosafety capacity building initiatives taking place on the continent.
The hard earned victories won under the Biosafety Protocol are under serious threat from these GE 'biosafety' initiatives. These initiatives are designed to thwart the development of sound biosafety policies and laws. There is an ever present danger that African countries will be overwhelmed by the volley of technical experts they are peppered with by USAID and biotech industry money and expertise, that they will succumb, despite their valid concerns, to these formidable forces.
The fad is the drafting of national biosafety frameworks. The implementation of the Biosafety Protocol has been seized upon and exploited by proponents of GE, as an opportunity to promote and weak and ineffective legal regimes and redirect capacity building in biotechnology rather than biosafety in an attempt to garner much needed support for this dangerous technology.
Influential proponents of GE especially from South Africa have become more sophisticated and better resourced in their promotion of GE in Africa, often citing the following as impediments to the acceptance of GE 'rapid introduction of genetically modified crops, in spite of their potential positive impact on agricultural production and food security. Constraints include a lack of capacity to evaluate risk and make decisions; lack of funding and political will to implement appropriate regulatory processes, concern over the role of multinational companies and the loss of control by Africans over their own resources."
Examples of USAID's Biosafety Initiatives in Africa
USAID through the Association to Strengthen Agricultural Research in East and Central Africa (ASARECA) facilitates collaborative research between those countries in Africa linked to the ASARECA, US public and private sectors and international agricultural research centres. The principal aim is to foster regional acceptance of GE through weak biosafety regulations, and thereby promote the technology transfer and private sector investment in GE in Africa.
USAID's Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project (ABSP) has established a partnership with seven Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries-Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe-to similarly provide technical training in biosafety regulatory implementation. Its ostensible goal is to promote conformity with the science- based standards of the World Trade Organisation's Sanitary and Phyotosanitary agreement and the Biosafety Protocol. Needless to say, taking into account the US’s WTO challenge of the European Union’s de facto moratorium on GMOs, that every attempt will be made to ensure that biosafety regulations are consistent with the WTO rules rather than the Biosafety Protocol.
USAID has awarded the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), a consortium $14.8 million to assistance developing countries to enhance Biosafety policy, research, and capacity. Included in this list of developing countries are a number of countries in East and West Africa. The International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) heads the consortium. The consortium is reported as having amongst its goals, the rendering of assistance "to governments in making science-based decisions about the effects on biodiversity of introducing GMOs into the environment" and assisting such countries in regulating and conducting experimental field trials. These goals are preposterous as they are unashamedly aimed at usurping decision-making powers of countries and their sovereign rights to perform regulatory functions.
It is ironic that the US, still not a Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity and cannot therefore ratify the Biosafety Protocol should want to promote biosafety in Africa and the implementation of the Biosafety Protocol.
It is clear that the US and the GE industry are pursuing a well-orchestrated strategy in Africa to lower resistance to GE and gain acceptance of this extremely controversial technology.
Africa's redeeming assets
While on the surface, this picture appears bleak; there is a groundswell of NGOs, consumers, farmers, government officials, parliamentarians and scientists opposing GE in Africa. Benin for example, has imposed a moratorium on the imports and cultivation of GMOs.
Last year, several countries in Southern Africa resisted and seriously questioned the donation by the US through USAID, of GE food aid. Zambia refused to accept the food aid and effectively took a decision to ban the distribution of food aid within its borders. Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe requested that all US imported GE maize be milled prior to distribution in order to prevent its inadvertent use as seed. Lesotho and Swaziland authorized the distribution of non-milled GE aid but not before it warned the public that the grain should be used strictly for consumption and not cultivation. This saga played an important role in heightening the debate within Africa on the health, social, economic and environmental impacts of GE crop.
An offshoot of this is the publication by the SADC Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and Biosafety of their recommendations regarding GE food aid. These are significant because a key recommendation is that donors GE food aid, should comply with Prior Informed Consent principles and the notification requirements of the Biosafety Protocol. This is extremely important, given that the World Food Program has admitted that it has, since 1996 been delivering food aid that included GE food products, without warning the recipient countries.It also calls for the African region to develop harmonized policy and regulatory systems based on the OAU African Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology (Model Law), and the Biosafety Protocol
The Model Law is a set of holistic and stringent biosafety rules drafted by a number of African biosafety experts crafted specifically to protect Africa's biodiversity, environment and the health of its people from the risks posed by GMOs. At the AU Summit held in Maputo during July 2003, the AU pointedly encouraged African countries to use the Model Law as a basis for biosafety regulation. The adoption of the Model Law in Africa will give countries leverage to resist attempts by the powerful GE industry as experimental and dumping grounds for their products. Africa's biodiversity and the health of its people, can only be protected from the risks posed by GMOs if Africa as a whole, subscribes to common and uniform biosafety standards, based on the precautionary principle.
These gems are important contributions towards maximizing Africa's chances to limit the risks posed by GE. It is clear, however, that much has needs to be done.
 USAID Announces international Biotech collaboration, US Department of State, June 2002
 See further, Mayet, M. August 1999 Critical Review of Exiting Legislative Framework for Genetic Engineering In South Africa Biowatch South Africa. And Mayet, M. February 2000 Srutinising the Legalities of Genetic Modification in South Africa: Food Safety, Public Participation and the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biological Diversity. Biowatch South Africa. Found at http://www.biowatch.org.za
 For instance, USAID funds the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which is also supported by the Rockerfeller Foundation, OECD, Monsanto, Dow Chemicals, Dupont and Syngenta. Passing of as an 'African initiative' because its headquarters is in Sierra Leone, the role of the AATF is to use poverty and the urgent need for food security strategies in Africa to push for the opening of markets by sharing patents and seeds. However, this initiative is aimed at ensuring the firm control of African research institutions in Africa. Take note also, that because the initial predictions of the GE industry have not materialized, huge amounts of money is now being invested in the so-called 'second generation' of crops. Nigeria based International Institute for Tropical Agriculture and its parent body the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) recently announced its "Harvest Plus Plan" to embark on resources for second-generation GE crops (maize, cassava, and sweet potatoes). The Plan has received a cash injection of $US 100 million. These are only but 2 examples.
 See further, http://www.biodiv.org/biosafety.aspx?sts_rtf&ord=dt
 Ethiopia, Senegal, Kenya, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania, Cameroon, Tunisia, Mozambique, Mali, Botswana, Mauritius, Djibouti, Liberia, Uganda and Lesotho.
 Morris, J and Koch, M. Biosafety of genetically modified crops-An African Perspective. AgbiotechNet 2002, Vol. 4 December, ABN 102.
 ASERECA supports research in Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
 USAID launches Biotechnology Initiatives with Africa: programs foster improved regulation, research, development. March 2, 3001.
 Consortium to support biosafety in developing countries 9 June 2003 http:www. Futureharvest.org/pdf/Biosafety_Final1.pdf
 Pearce, F. 'UN is slipping modified food into aid' New Scientist, 19 September 2002.
 See further, Mayet, M. Why Africa should adopt the OAU Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology
Africa - the new frontier for the GE industry - important article
Africa - the new frontier for the GE industry