ISIS Report 04/10/05
GM crops for Africa? No Thanks!
Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety based
in South Africa exposes the machinations of USAID and other agencies to push
GM crops under the guise of biosafety capacity building
A fully referenced
version of this article is posted on ISIS members’ website. Details here
Africa in no hurry for GM crops
“Most African countries, like many other poor countries cannot advance
GM crop research because their national policies or regulatory systems are
not prepared to deal with safety requirement for approving general use.” Joel
Cohen of the International Food Policy Research Institute based in Washington
DC was reported to have said .
in no hurry to introduce genetically modified (GM) crops. South Africa remains
isolated on the continent as the only country prepared to take biosafety decisions
on GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that have resulted in their commercialisation.
Over the last five years, only eight other countries have conducted field
trials of GM crops: Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania,
Zambia and Zimbabwe .
An unexpected turn of events
has seen pro-GM Kenya decide to terminate GM maize field trials
launched as recently as May 2005 . Indeed, several countries have imposed
bans or other forms of restriction on the import, distribution and commercial
growing of GMOs  as part of a continent wide response to the risks posed
to human health, the environment and traditional farming systems (see box).
Bans and restrictions imposed by African countries on GM imports
introduced a ban on the import, distribution, commercialisation and use
of GM plant material in December 2000
introduced a ban on imports of unmilled GM food aid in April 2004
has taken measures to prevent imports of GM food aid, with a moratorium
on import of GMOs until national legislation comes into force
has permitted the distribution of non-milled GM food aid, with a public
warning that the grain should be consumed and not used for cultivation
has had a ban on importing unmilled GM crops since 2002
- Mozambique’s government is
prepared to accept GM food aid provided that maize is milled prior to distribution
- Namibian government
rejected GM maize in 2002 and received wheat for food aid instead
government prepared to accept GM food aid provided maize is milled prior
banned the import of GM food aid during May 2003, but issued a series
of temporary waivers under pressure by the US
permitted the distribution of non-milled GM food aid, with a public warning
that the grain should be consumed and not used for cultivation
refused to accept GM grain donated as food aid in 2002
is prepared to accept GM food aid provided the maize is milled prior to
Independent scientific study documents failures
A recent study conducted by the Michigan State University concluded
that it may take up to 15 years to develop GM crops, create regulatory frameworks,
field test and deliver GM cultivars to smallholder farmers in Africa.
Their research is based on seven African GM case studies including the spectacular
failure of Kenya’s GM sweet potato project and the wildly premature acclaim
of “success” of the Bt cotton smallholder in South Africa. The study cautions
that the “rise and decline of the Bt cotton smallholder in that country should
be carefully studied by other nations where cotton field trials are underway”
. It turns out that the smallholders planting GM cotton in South Africa
were given special financial credit and preferential treatment in water resources.
And even then, they had to continue spraying for bollworm [6, 7].
GM crops promoted under the guise of capacity building for biosafety
Nevertheless, a frustrated pro-biotechnology alliance is re-doubling its efforts
to put pressure on key countries to finalise their biosafety frameworks and
laws in order to put GM crops into the African soil via a whole array of biosafety
projects. The most active players include USAID (United States Agency for International
Development) and the UNEP-GEF (United Nations Environment Programme/Global Environmental
Facility) whose biosafety capacity building projects also appear to be providing
ample opportunities for foreign experts to unduly influence national biosafety
processes . This is borne out by our experience at the African Centre for
Biosafety in reviewing draft biosafety laws in Africa.
African Model Law on Biosafety
The African Union (AU) led on biosafety issues
by developing the African Model Law on
Safety in Biotechnology (‘African Model Law’). At its 74th
Ordinary Session convened in Lusaka, Zambia in July 2001, the AU Council of
Ministers endorsed the Model Law and urged member states to use the Model
Law to draft their own national legal instruments .
Adopting the African Model
Law provides a unique opportunity for governments in Africa to introduce national
biosafety regulations that adhere to a broader and unified continental framework
and uses the discretion given by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety
for countries to adopt more protective measures than the minimum set out in
the Biosafety Protocol.
The provisions of the African Model Law are therefore
far more comprehensive than those required by the Biosafety Protocol and acknowledge
the importance of Africa as both a centre of origin and a centre of diversity
of food and other crops.
The Model Law also embraces the precautionary principle and recognises the
sovereign right of every country to require a rigorous risk assessment of any
GMO for any use before any decision is made. It captures the essential elements
for a liability and redress regime, which should be incorporated into domestic
biosafety legislation. Stricter controls regarding the introduction and use
of genetically modified food as food aid can also be introduced through the
Model Law .
An AU biosafety capacity
building project designed to spearhead the harmonisation of biosafety legislation
between member states based on the African Model law was conceived . But
the project has been unduly delayed for several years because of internal
bureaucratic hurdles, with the result that much ground has been lost.
Meanwhile, biotech industry
lobby groups have lost no time in trying to discredit the African Model law
by deliberately misconstruing and misrepresenting its provisions [12-14].
Attempts are now underway to revive this project, in order to promote the
African Model law across the continent.
USAID and biosafety laws in Africa
USAID is directly involved in at least two programmes designed to open
Africa to GMOs: the Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II (ABSPII)
 and the Program for Biosafety Systems
(PBS). The PBS has been allocated $14.8 million to help countries in Africa
and Asia develop biosafety systems and to assist in biosafety
decision-making , and is co-ordinated by Washington D.C based International
Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
Ghana is part of a three-year
PBS project. On 17 July 2005, the Minister of Environment and Science Ms Christine
Churcher launched Ghana’s National Biosafety Framework (NBF), including its
Biosafety Bill. She pointed out that Ghana is the first country in Africa
to develop a NBF under the UNEF/GEF’s Biosafety Capacity Building Project,
proving Ghana’s ability to ensure sustained use of modern biotechnology products
and processes .
Our analysis of the Biosafety
Bill found that it is principally drafted to permit the planting of
GMOs in Ghana. Every attempt has been made to ensure that human health is
excluded from the enquiry. This same approach was taken in the Tanzanian Biosafety
Guidelines. There were also several provisions reminiscent of the Swaziland
Biosafety draft law crafted by a New York based consultant.
The similarities include provisions dealing with confidential
information that will severely curtail the public’s right to information;
peculiar language with respect to risk assessment that is not consistent with
biosafety parlance; and provisions dealing with exemptions that are vague
in law and science and confer too much unfettered decision-making power to
USAID has also started a three year project (2005-8)
and will spend another $2 million through its Office of Economic and Science
Policy (ESP) to provide biosafety regulatory assistance to several West African
countries that are part of the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS);
in particular, Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin and Chad. This project will provide
much more “targeted assistance” by focussing on Bt cotton field trials and
GM food aid .
USAID does not miss any
opportunity to weaken biosafety laws in Africa. In March 2004, USAID submitted
comments to the government of Zambia brazenly proposing the insertion of a
clause on the principle of substantial equivalence into the draft biosafety
law. Additionally, USAID proposed procedures to enable approvals for several
GM events in a single application, in order to expedite the influx of GM food,
thereby severely undermining Zambia’s precautionary approach to GMOs .
USAID also made extensive comments throughout the text of the draft Zambian
biosafety legislation, urging Zambia to use the specific wording of the Biosafety
Bill in regard to definitions, socio-economic impacts, risk assessments, the
precautionary principle and so forth; despite the fact that the Biosafety Protocol
allows Member States to take more stringent and protective measures.
UNEP/GEF biosafety capacity building project: Undue influence?
The UNEP/GEF biosafety capacity building project provides
funding, technical and other support to numerous developing countries. We
have attended several of their workshops and have come to the following conclusions
about the project:
- It is structurally flawed because it has been designed
primarily to coax governments to establish merely a permissive rather than an effective
biosafety regulatory system and as such, is preoccupied with
- It focuses principally on the implementation of
the Biosafety Protocol, with the result that government officials run the
risk of being misled into believing that once they have implemented the
minimum standards of the Biosafety Protocol, their Biosafety Frameworks
would thus be complete
- It makes use of inappropriate resource persons to
address capacity building workshops, including experts such as Ms Muffy
Koch, a member of Africabio and who is now employed by Agbios, Canada.
We have reviewed the draft
biosafety laws of Kenya , Tanzania , Lesotho  and Swaziland  that all participated
in the UNEP/GEF Biosafety Capacity Building projects. The Kenya biosafety
bill is merely a rubber-stamping system designed to approve GM applications.
Important provisions of the Biosafety Protocol that form the cornerstones
of biosafety regulation had been entirely omitted from the Bill, including
the precautionary principle and public participation.
Tanzania is poised to begin field trials of Bt cotton in October 2005, in the southern highland
regions of Mbeya, Rukwa and Iringa , and has opted for a set of voluntary,
non-legally binding biosafety guidelines. These place a great deal of emphasis
on field trials, yet neglect to provide for adequate regulation of commercial
releases and imports of GMO food, including food aid, feed and processing.
The drafters also neglected to make explicit reference to the precautionary principle in decision-making.
Bill has been drafted principally to implement the Biosafety Protocol verbatim,
and in so doing, perpetuates some of its weaknesses and deficiencies. It is
in fact littered with examples of basic minimum standards and leaves no
room for innovation. It makes
no attempt to provide for protection of biodiversity and human health.
With regard to
the draft Biosafety Bill of Swaziland, it appears that the New York
based drafter took enormous liberties as numerous serious discrepancies exist
between Swaziland’s Draft Policy
and the Biosafety Bill, which utterly ignores the safeguards set out in the
Draft Policy with respect to GM food aid. These include requirements
that only milled GM food be allowed; that the shipment be accompanied by a
written declaration guaranteeing that all events have been approved in the
country of origin and have not been contaminated by unapproved events, edible
vaccines or any such contaminants.
Winds of change
African governments also share some responsibility for
bad biosafety laws and for allowing external pressures to influence sovereign
processes. However, the lack of adequate biosafety capacity in Africa is widely
acknowledged as a major problem, making it easy for foreign ‘technical expertise’
to be brought in and unduly influence the process. Nevertheless, Africa has
some biosafety expertise and capacity that should be developed for national
and regional biosafety processes. African civil society is also becoming much
more involved in the GM debate. Consequently, external influences in the domestic
regulatory issues may be met with summary exposure and stiff resistance in
The revival of the AU’s
biosafety capacity building project can go a long way towards neutralising
adverse political pressures. It has the very real potential to put into place
common environmental standards and protective measures based on the precautionary
principle and the African Model Law. Such unified legislation would also protect
Africa from abuse by the powerful biotechnology industry looking
for an experimental facility and dumping ground for its products.