By Wahinya Henry
As more African countries turn to growing Genetically Modified crops, the largest trading block in the continent – the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) – is fine tuning modalities that will ensure the crops are traded in an orderly manner.
With a population of 389 million people, the 19 member states of Comesa command an annual import bill of $32 billion and export bill of $82.
Experts in agricultural biotechnology, who assembled in Nairobi, last week, to push the biotechnology agenda, emphasised the need for order as the countries venture into production and trade in GM crops.
Food security in Africa is still an aspiration, and recent events in North Africa and the Middle East saw the rise in food prices.
"We as a block need to speed up the process to conclude development of Comesa regional biosafety policies and guidelines before the crops are commercialised. The draft policies and guidelines are intended to ensure GM crops are traded in a harmonised manner,” said Dr Getachew Belay, a senior biotechnology adviser at the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA) and Comesa.
"The other key elements of the process of pushing the biotechnology agenda is to have a common approach to planting of GM crops,” added Belay.
ACTESA is a specialised agency of Comesa, whose main goal is to increase farmer productivity and incomes through agricultural trade, mainly staple crops and livestock.
ACTESA is spearheading the biotechnology agenda of the Comesa region in line with the decision of the ministers of agriculture, environment and natural resources, during a meeting in July, last year, in Lusaka, Zambia.
Comesa countries are in different stages when it comes to biotech policy choices and capacity, with Kenya taking the lead.
The Kenya National Consultative Workshop was organised by ACTRSA in collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, NBA and the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa.
Focus for discussants and speakers at the forum, among them Prof Patricia Kameri-Mbote, David Wafula and Dr Francis Nang’aayo, revolved around harmonisation of the biosafety policies, increased intra and inter-regional trade, faster economic growth, food safety, social welfare, environmental quality and reduced poverty.
“Egypt is the only country in the block to have commercialised biotech maize. That means national decisions will have implications across the Eastern and Southern Africa and the continent as a whole," said Belay.
According to senior programmes officer at the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) Dr Felix M’mboyi, the need for adoption and commercialisation of the crops to reduce food insecurity has been acknowledged.
"A commercial planting policy would thus be required to provide guidance, on how to manage the inevitable movement of the GM products safely and responsibly,” said M’mboyi
M"mboyi said biotechnology agenda in Africa, mainly of GMOs, has been contentious, with controversies driven largely by emotions rather than science-based reasoning.
"It is a matter of each country deciding whether they will allow their farmers, traders and people to benefit from a technology that increases yield,” said M’mboyi.
M"mboyi said a number of Comesa member countries belong to the Southern African Development Community (SADC) where South Africa, a member of the regional block, grows yellow and white GM maize on commercial scale.
M"mboyi said South Africa is unique as it is the only country in Africa that has produced GM crops for more than ten years.
He said unlike many countries in the region, it has a functional biosafety system to manage any risk related to the use of GM products.
The country remains one of the few countries that trade GM crops, despite being bordered by countries banning the use of GM products “In the absence of such a regionally recognised policy, potential disruption of intra-regional trade would be a major threat,” said M"mboyi